Author Archives: Joel David

About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.]

Bibliographic Mini-Essay 2: The Rise in Spin-offs

One game I’ve been playing in uploading and updating the Pinas film bibliography is predicting what category would be first to require splitting up because of a too-large number of entries. A few categories had to be handled this way right after I first posted the categorized file – which only meant that I observed how the majority of categories tended toward the same range. So after a period where some categories needed to be expanded – Novelizations added to Screenplays, Teleplays, and (filmmaking) Accounts; Special Journal Issues added to Studies & Festschrifts – the next stage was a reclassification of the largest groups in order to align them within the same range as the others.

11011Initially it seemed to me that the Reviews and Criticism category might be the first to require this treatment. As it turned out, the first three that needed to be adjusted, over a year since the bibliography went online, were: Histories – a good sign, since that meant that people were paying more attention to film development, with enough material to constitute its own pre-Marcos category); Auteurist Materials and Memoirs – essentially an overlapping differentiation, since the objects of the biographical issues would be auteurs in either instance, but I enforced a distinction wherein Memoirs would be personalized accounts of a subject’s private and professional experiences, while Auteurist Materials would be screen cultural studies that proceeded (partly or entirely) from an auteur’s psychobiography; and Screenplays, Teleplays, Novelizations, Accounts (the first to be expanded) – an extensive-seeming group that actually neatly subdivided itself in the middle.

11011My critical-academic biases, the same ones that led me to expect that Reviews and Criticism would be the fastest-growing category, caused me to pay the least attention to the last category I mentioned until the number of entries called for adjustment. One film-derived adaptation comprised short stories while another was a musical (of which several more can be published even at this point), so I changed the subcategory’s title, from Novelizations to Literary Adaptations. And had to confront the proverbial can of (book)worms: a great number of local films, especially during the early years, may not have been spun off into literary texts but were definitely adapted from pre-existing material. We may think that the end of our equivalent of the Classical Hollywood period, the First Golden Age, finally liberated us from relying on “worthy” samples like metric romances and historical novels, but look more closely. Some of the best output of that period actually originated from a still grossly underappreciated source: serialized graphic novels called komiks, to differentiate them from the US innovation that inspired and inspirited them.

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11011Komiks at one point became the primary print form for Philippine readers, so it naturally made sense for producers to schedule projects at around the time when a serialization was expected to conclude. This symbiosis between film and print proved fail-safe, so in fact we might make two corollary claims: that Filipinos were the most avid consumers per-capita of visual media (of which film was merely one among several possible instances), and that the closest to a unifying national language we ever had was, propitiously yet problematically, audiovisual.

11011If this sounds like an apology for an extensive gap in bibliographical material – Where are the literary sources of our film products? – I don’t see how it can be anything else but.[1] It’s a doable challenge for ambitious cultural historians, but it lies beyond the scope of other tasks I’ve designated for myself. For one thing, someone already counting down to retirement (as I am) will have to reset her timetable to accommodate the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation, just to accomplish the empirical groundwork. Let this goblet pass from me and I promise to fill it later with some delightfully filthy potables. Patience is our key.

11011As for the recent adaptational flurry of publishing activity on the part of pop-oriented publishers and alert production houses, education officials should be able to recognize how a decline in komiks patronage may have been replaced by our audience members’ willingness to read texts that recapture or enhance their movie-watching experience. It may have been a few years’ trend that does appear to be waning, another opportunity to upgrade young people’s literacy wasted by local educators’ inability to cope with the fairly dated challenge of teaching audiovisual appreciation.

Note

[1] The emergence of new media has occasioned several novel instances of narrative renewal and adaptation. Those written about in books include films derived from Wattpad stories, Facebook exchanges, viral videos (converging on the TikTok app during the Covid-19 pandemic), and online games. Mobile-phone content – in terms of oral conversations as well as SMS chats – have also become standard fiction-film features.

11011One might also have to face the possibility that the challenge of tracking every possible prior influence in Philippine cinema might amount to a snipe hunt, inasmuch as the country’s Westernization provided a wide range of influences from two continents through premodern to postmodern periods. Moreover, the still-unresolved obsession with “originality” that (at least during the early years of organized criticism) constantly intruded on useful film evaluation, along with the ever-present concern for moral values, promise to constitute stumbling blocks even for progressive thinkers.

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Experimental Cinema of the Philippines: A Hasty Recollection

The Experimental Cinema of the Philippines only appears as a category in my list of pre-internet non-journal non-newspaper periodicals, which provides an incomplete picture of the agency’s persistence in my output. For this reason I thought of providing this landing page, essentially a provisional and still gap-filled collection. I happened to have just a few materials from the agency and only one from the Manila International Film Festival, which was officially one of the ECP’s departments but repudiated by the director-general (originally slated to be Imelda Marcos but preempted by her daughter Ma. Imelda a.k.a. Imee). These were the publications I brought along with me to my graduate studies abroad, to serve as basic research material; as it turned out, everything else I left back home – periodicals, videos, and memorabilia – was either pilfered or damaged by typhoons and/or termites.

11011The discovery of a building proposal, submitted in 1981 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, classified as restricted and titled “The Manila Film Centre,” was something I found online, presumably after having been cleared. The historical structure appears to have followed the proposal, implying that the former First Lady was closely involved in its design from the start.

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The Film Palace: A Divergence

Regarding the collapse of the Manila Film Center scaffolding during its construction in November 1981, attributed to careless building procedures, I have consistently presented the following qualifications: the architect in charge, Froilan Hong, had extensive global academic preparation and experience in modernist construction (he was Dean of the national university’s College of Architecture around that period), so he understandably contested the number of victims – of which, typically, an exact number will never be determined;[1] also, anyone then who still remembered the temblor-triggered collapse of the Ruby Tower residential building about a decade earlier (an event that vicariously traumatized Filipino architects everywhere, including my father) would not be tempted to cut corners in a far more complicated undertaking. Since the regime imposed a news blackout for over a day, I have found it impossible to confirm any preliminary report of the incident even in foreign-press accounts. For this reason, two dates are also mentioned in various accounts (either the 17th or the 18th), possibly arising from the confusion caused by the delay in the release of information.

11011The national dailies that carefully printed similar-sounding news acknowledged that some workers died but that construction activities had resumed. As anyone with sufficient experience with media psychology could have foretold, several speculations – ranging from natural to metaphysical – emerged to clarify, embellish, or challenge the official version of events. For my part, I can only add what first-hand experience could affirm: on the (still-to-be-determined) date of the incident, I was in the vicinity of the construction, along with the rest of the public-relations staff, winding up overnight preparations required to beat some printing deadline for the production of materials for the MIFF. Our office at the Philippine International Convention Center faced the same parking lot where the MFC was rising dextrally, so occasionally we would peer out to see the structure, brightly lit as if being readied for a Hollywood blockbuster, with ladders, derricks, and hoists on all sides.

11011A few hours after midnight a strong tremor shook the place. Everyone rushed to the windows to see what happened to the construction. The sight was uncanny, with workers scampering everywhere, the ladders filled with men clambering downward. From this distant spectacle we knew that something dreadful could have happened (as it did), but we had our tasks to complete and were groggy from working nonstop already.

11011I mention this specific detail because it appears in no other account except “Grains & Flickers,” the article I wrote for the 2016 book edited by JPaul S. Manzanilla and Caroline S. Hau, titled Remembering/Rethinking EDSA. One careless commentator blurted out in a group discussion (all right, chat) that my story sounds like an exoneration of the people involved in the tragedy – neglecting the crucial facts that first, it happened, and second, I was with witnesses. Undeniably it complicates the narrative, but I wouldn’t say it exculpates the usual suspects unless one were to operate within the fully guilty-vs.-fully innocent binary that critically ill-equipped (though unfortunately typical) netizens have become accustomed to.[2]

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The Malakas at Maganda mural displayed at the entrance to the main theater of the Manila Film Center (from Lakbay ng Lakan, reprinted with permission). For a discussion, please see the Corrigenda & Problematics page I uploaded for my book Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic.

A Haunting

I have to begin by expressing my mounting vexation at the number of netizens asking about the presence of ghosts in the building. Scientific and historical materialism before everything else, please (and sorry for stating what should have been obvious already). We moved in after the MIFF for which the MFC was constructed had ended, and a number of accounts correctly state that government officials were hoping for an exorcism ritual – but identify Imelda Marcos as its instigator. This made no sense, since her event had just finished and it was the ECP, led by Imee Marcos, that was to hold office in the building; it was also out of character for Mrs. Marcos, whose advisers would have dissuaded her from conducting such an exercise. (The MIFF, as an independently run ECP department, occupied an upper floor but was operated by its Deputy Director John J. Litton, who preferred to use the initials JJL.) Fortunately a former supervisor, Nena C. Benigno, provided a definitive account of Imee Marcos’s direct involvement in the ritual in a magazine interview in 2015.

11011The news about Betty Benitez perishing in a vehicular accident after an assignation with Onofre D. Corpuz had a whiff of karmic schadenfreude about it, since Benitez was in charge of the MFC construction project. The story that what caused their car to swerve disastrously was a vision of bloodied workers crossing the street first circulated as a persistent rumor, but it was another death – that of Benigno Aquino Jr. in September 1983, returning from exile in the US – that finally facilitated the publication of the tale. It came out in a Catholic Church opposition broadsheet, Veritas, minus any authorial credit, and added the slant that the two, married but not to each other, were conducting an affair. I recognized the article’s stylistic flourishes as typical of a former office co-worker, Eddie Pacheco, who had started expressing dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the Aquino assassination and resigned soon afterward. (Pacheco lived in Pampanga after his retirement but was killed in an apparent early-morning burglary in 2012.)

11011What haunted my memory during and after my stint at the agency was an encounter with an old security guard. He was extraordinarily avuncular, in the manner that elderly working-class men carry over from their drunken states when they realize how well it goes over with strangers they want to impress. I was leaving work with some of my office mates and lingered by the exit as they timestamped their employee-record cards. The old man started talking about how he’d been guarding the place during the construction period, so I asked if he witnessed the collapse of the scaffolding. He talked at length about workers who lost their limbs, if not their lives, and bodies that had to be cemented over in order to meet the building completion deadline.

11011I knew he was gravely endangering himself but he seemed to be unaware of the kind of reality I’d already been able to observe: Imee Marcos enrolled in the same class on Philippine nationalism that I was taking under Renato Constantino a few years earlier, and several heavyset middle-aged barong-clad men, definitely not national-university types, presented their registration credentials and positioned themselves all over the classroom while she sat in the center. I thought I could just warn him another time, when less of a crowd would be standing around … but he never showed up again afterward. He could have been fired, or transferred, or just scared away from his job – but this was martial law, and it was never advisable to assume anything less than the worst. If I’d been one of the over-imaginative (though frankly airheaded) cinema attendants who loved indulging in ghost tales and never wanted for listeners prepped by the MFC’s bloody history, I would have spread the story that he must have been one of the fallen workers who wanted his version of events told right, a revenant who returned to the afterlife upon accomplishing his mission. It would have been a far less distressing account than the real-life possibilities I had to accept.

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Other ECP Materials in Ámauteurish!

I’d reviewed a few films that came out during this period, including the ECP productions except the last one. I’d still been working out a critical voice and perspective then, so I’d prefer not to list these titles here, although anyone interested for whatever reason will be able to find the films in this blog’s Reviews section.

11011The release (in more ways than one) of the Ishmael Bernal film Manila by Night may be regarded as the ECP’s final positive contribution to Pinas pop-culture history: it was banned upon completion in early 1980 and screened with seemingly uncountable cuts and deletions – the most severely censored movie ever in local cinema. After the MIFF’s reliance on pornographic films in order to fund the First Lady’s world-scale bacchanals followed a few months later by the killing of Aquino, the MFC sounded out a call for artistic sex-themed products.[3] I remember writing an informal letter to an official suggesting that MbN should be considered a prime candidate because it was officially accepted for the Berlin International Film Festival competition (though prevented from leaving at the time because of the First Lady’s disapprobation); it won the local critics’ award despite its badly mangled condition; and its producer actively participated in providing well-attended titles for MFC screenings. After this I also recall processing the documentation necessary for the release of the integral version of the film for screening exclusively at the MFC.[4]

11011The definitive empirical summary of the agency’s performance lies in documents, stored on drives, that are now lost: its annual reports, all of which I researched, compiled, and wrote. The first one, titled Experimental Cinema of the Philippines: Year One, came out as a glossy publication, while the second and third were bound printouts. Why only three years, when the ECP was set up in 1981 and the EDSA uprising was in 1986? Once more, despite most accounts’ misperception, the organization existed only for as long as Imee Marcos could devote her full attention to it. After the Aquino assassination (and upon getting her now-controversial law degree from the national university), she decided to run for the interim parliament and focus on her duties therein. With the MIFF only too willing to take over the agency, she arranged for the ECP to be dissolved and a new body called the Film Development Foundation of the Philippines set up in its place. This was the body that was shut down in February 1986.

11011While it was around, the public relations department where I worked managed to come up with a magazine, SineManila, limited to a maiden issue because of a nasty turf war waged by a military agent and her staff who insisted that her department’s tiny magazine, Filipino Film Review (my complete file of which was lost), be the only ECP publication that the public could access. We also managed to come up with only one in-house publication, Jario Scenario, since the ECP at this stage was nearing its transition to the FDFP.

11011Since the officials in our department were outsourced from the National Media Production Center (now the Philippine Information Agency), we were obliged to serve all ECP departments including the MIFF. (Recall the opening account where our experience of the tremor that caused the MFC tragedy was due to one of several all-nighters necessitated by an impending MIFF printer’s deadline.) The start of my employment was right after the MIFF dry-run edition, during which I managed to secure passes for the critics circle and experienced the kind of overload that led me to regard filmfests as less-than-ideal venues for appreciating movies.

11011The next year’s (first regular) MIFF was the one held at the MFC building, already and inevitably notorious even before it opened. It had Satyajit Ray as chair of the competition jury, and honored a now-forgotten film, 36 Chowringhee Lane, Aparna Sen’s debut as a director, defeating entries by the likes of Roger Donaldson, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Lawrence Kasdan, Karel Reisz, François Truffaut, and Peter Weir. A daily magazine, Manila Film International (of which my complete file was also irretrievably damaged), was published but not by our department. The next year’s winner was another close-to-forgotten entry, the late Yu Wigong’s Memories of Old Peking (a.k.a. My Memories of Old Beijing), but it also had Filipino films in competition: Oro, Plata, Mata (which won a special jury prize) by Peque Gallaga and Moral by Marilou Diaz-Abaya.

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Essential Readings

In coordination with the now-defunct Metro Manila Commission, the ECP and MIFF launched separate publications the next year. The ECP’s was a book edited by Rafael Ma. Guerrero, titled Readings in Philippine Cinema – as definitive a text as it was possible to compile up to that point. The MIFF had strictly supplementary material, also edited (though uncredited) by Guerrero, titled Focus on Filipino Films. The eponymously titled film module that the latter accompanied can well be regarded as the highlight of all the MIFF editions put together: a nearly ideal canon-formation project that conscripted film experts who screened available films (though only once) and deliberated on whether they should be included or not; new prints of the selected titles were then struck, with French and English subtitles. Eye-opener accounts such as “Manila’s Angels,” Elliott Stein’s article in Film Comment, made exceptions in a properly critical report of the MIFF’s proceedings in order to express admiration for several of the module entries.

11011Needless to add, this first-time attempt was never to be replicated thereafter. Many of the now faded prints are regarded as still the most acceptable available copies of their specific titles, with digital remastering the only possible future stage for them. The next year’s MIFF reverted to the dry-run dimension, to be able to evade the then-growing united-front movement that arose in protest over the Aquino assassination.

11011A still insistently forward-thinking ECP administration proceeded with its last batch of productions, which gave me the opportunity to interview Soltero director Pio de Castro III on location in Baguio – at the Hyatt Terraces, the same hotel that collapsed from another tremor several years after. They also assigned me to attend the courses of the lately introduced undergraduate film specialization at the national university, to be able to eventually set up our own education program. I countered that, since I already held a bachelor’s diploma from the institute that proffered the degree, I would need only a few extra units in order to earn the new baccalaureate itself. I thought my proposal would have come across as audacious, but then there were already less tasks to attend to with the “indefinitely postponed” MIFF and the impending transition of the director-general to her interim Batasang Pambansa commitment. The February 1986 ouster of the Marcos administration occurred during my final semester of undergrad film studies, so just like in my first bachelor’s degree, I was once more a working student who was out of a job upon graduation.[5]

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Notes

I do acknowledge that the memoir format will better serve some of the material presented here, but I prefer not to let this opportunity pass in case I wind up unable to complete the writing project. So I will name this early the people to whom I plan to dedicate the forthcoming effort: the ones (possibly entirely men, but we have no way of knowing any longer) who unwillingly and prematurely gave up their lives for the construction of the hideously pretentious building where we had to work for too long. The ouster of the Marcos regime was not bloody enough to redress the violence visited on you (as well as countless others), and the silence with which your annihilation was completed.

[1] A letter sent by Baltazar N. Endriga, former chair and president of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, states that Froilan Hong counted seven fatalities and recapitulates the standard account of how “the scaffolding supporting the platform into which concrete was being poured collapsed and the seven workers fell to their deaths. The bodies of all seven were then retrieved and given the proper rites befitting the dead. [Hong] belied the popular story that many workers were buried alive in concrete and that in the hurry to finish the construction, they were simply entombed under the Film Center’s bowels” (“Account on the 1981 Manila Film Center Deaths,” Inquirer.net, February 26, 2021). Endriga does not state his involvement in the project or whether Hong was present during the accident and/or rescue operations.

[2] I did manage to secure recent official confirmation that short night tremors, ranging from moderate to strong, hit Luzon during both dates, after the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology referred my query to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration – inasmuch as the former was founded only afterward, in September 1982, and therefore the pre-PHIVOLCS tracking of earthquakes was performed by PAGASA. I have no knowledge of the reliability of the government’s seismographic instruments or record-keeping activities during that time, however, so these questions will have to be regarded for now as compounding the other problem I mentioned of determining the exact date of the MFC tragedy.

[3] Not surprisingly, the MIFF concerned itself with the same goal, since it had already reaped profits from adults-only screenings from all over (downtown venues were censorship-exempt during the festival period). Producers were convened at the MFC’s MIFF office for specific instructions as to what they may be allowed to present – in porn parlance, tits & ass as well as simulated sex scenes. The ECP, for its part, provided support in the form of flyers and warm bodies for the Concerned Artists of the Philippines’s anti-censorship rallies.

11011When the expected moralist backlash occurred, with the chief of the Board of Censors for Motion Pictures asserting her presidential appointment and thereby operating at the same governmental level as Imee Marcos, a high-ranking MIFF official issued a statement that the films were smutty because producers were deliberately violating the limits that the government prescribed. The producers themselves, who were constant visitors at the MFC because of other services such as funding subsidies and tax rebates, replied (in strict confidence, understandably) that it was this same top MIFF official who kept pestering them to shoot far raunchier scenes even if these no longer had any relevance to the films being considered. Said official was blasted on national television after February 1986 by Lino Brocka, for his opportunistic claim that he had been supportive of the anti-Marcos opposition all along.

[4] What mystifies me is why members of the critics circle (who that time congratulated me for actualizing the release of the uncensored print) insist on calling the film anything except the title its producer and director-writer provided: because the film that their awards honored was not titled Manila by Night? (City after Dark was the censored version, while Manila after Dark does not even apply to any movie whatsoever.) The same government that banned, then censored, the film, also restored the original title when it was approved for an MFC screening. As the person assigned to host the premiere, I saw with my own eyes the words “Manila by Night” projected onscreen during the movie’s opening credits.

[5] I might as well provide one of the plausible urban myths that some media colleagues of mine claim as factual, since it does denote a happy ending and resembles my experience: one of Imee Marcos’s bodyguards supposedly realized that his official enrollment in the same courses she was taking at the national university was an opportunity for self-advancement, and actually completed for his own credit the same undergraduate and law degrees that she claimed to have finished (though without any official documentation in her case); he passed the bar exam and no longer had to risk his life for the sake of any high-ranking government bigwig. Some day some enterprising investigative journalist will have to uncover the truth (or falsity) of this singularly marvelous story.

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An Intro to Chapter 16 of Marcos’ Lovey Dovie

I uploaded a PDF copy of the chapter comprising the transcription of the audiotape surreptitiously recorded by Dovie Beams during her intimate sessions with Ferdinand E. Marcos. Both parties are gone but I found out only recently that Beams had passed away over three years ago. I consider her a definite and indispensable historical figure in Philippine cinema, not only for having starred in the fake Marcos biopic, Jerry Hopper’s Maharlika a.k.a. Guerrilla Strike Force (Roadshow Films International, 1970), but also because of the intrepid and colorful (though rather purplish) way she stood up to the harassment of Imelda Marcos, who arguably claimed her own share from her husband afterward by staging the ludicrously extravagant editions of the Manila International Film Festival.

11011We have to note at the outset that Beams sued Hermie Rotea, author of Marcos’ Lovey Dovie (Los Angeles: Liberty Publishing, 1983) – a 180-degree turnaround apparently, considering the “very special wishes to a very special guy” message that she scribbled on the photo reprinted on the back cover of the book. Hence the textual version of incontrovertible material that she went on record as authentically sourced (from and by her) would be the safest portion in a book that made no bones about waging its own political agendum, as manifested in its preliminary sections.

11011Beams lived to a ripe old age, dying at 85 in her birth city, Nashville. By the time that the Marcoses fell from power, she had apparently given up on her Hollywood acting prospects but was able to acquire some valuable property; in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she clarified two important matters: first, that the money came from the man she just married and not from the recently deposed President; and second, more surprisingly, that she still loved Marcos even though she felt compelled to leave him when he admitted to her that he was declaring martial law, upon which she realized that he was having people killed.[1]

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11011What happened to her to occasion her return to her place of birth? That part of her narrative still has to be told, along with the cause of her death in 2017. Nevertheless a conflict in her fiscal claim seems to override most observers’ appreciation of the consistency of her affection: if she really did love Ferdie in spite of the many awful things that he and his spouse did to her, then Rotea’s book would have come across as a betrayal – as it did. A far more potentially upsetting scandal is how, with one exception,[2] real (sex-positive) feminists from either side of the Pacific still have to recuperate her narrative, as if being a then-emerging Third World dictator’s paramour positioned her beyond redemption.

From the Law and Behold! Blogspot c/o Jun Brioso.

11011Speculation that any funds she had during the mid-1980s might have come from a mortally ill Ferdinand, could have proceeded from the guilt-ridden drive in liberal Western media (formerly protective, if not supportive, of pro-US despots) to track down and help recover the Marcoses’ record-breaking ill-gotten wealth, a project that still has to be completed at present. Beams though would have been an example of a contemporary Mata Hari[3] who barely got away from the wrath of Imelda. The latter, in turn (and thanks to Beams), abandoned all her cultivated pretensions to altruism and timidity and made sure that her rival’s reputation was trashed beyond repair.

11011What I remember from media coverage was how both pro-Marcos and opposition publications prospered from exploiting a debased image of Beams, and how she could barely land roles in Hollywood thereafter despite the wide publicity her affair generated.[4] The “X-Rated Sex Tapes” chapter from Marcos’ Lovey Dovie is posted here for its intrinsic (though admittedly titillating) research value, in place of the understandably now-rare recording that she once made available to Philippine media. (It was eventually broadcast over the national university radio station during the singularly liberative ten days of the Diliman Commune, which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this month.) My way of commemorating a genuine survivor of one of the most unusual and dangerous conflations of film and politics our time has ever had the privilege to witness.

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Notes

[1] See Deborah Hastings, “Ex-Actress Owns $7.7 Million in LA County Property: Controversy Follows Former Lover of Marcos” in the March 10, 1986, issue of the LA Times for the interview. An Associated Press report the next year, “Jury Convicts Alleged Former Marcos Mistress of Fraud” (datelined November 12, 1987), describes how Beams accumulated $18 million in loan applications from 13 banks in order to pursue a “lavish lifestyle,” with her personal financial bubble bursting after her husband Sergio de Villagran filed for bankruptcy, presumably after the 1986 interview. Part of her defense included the now-implausible claim that she was suffering from HIV/AIDS and consequently had problems exercising proper judgment because of the medications she had to use.

[2] In “Dovie Beams and Philippine Politics: A President’s Scandalous Affair and First Lady Power on the Eve of Martial Law,” Caroline S. Hau describes how “Like Ferdinand Marcos, Dovie Beams has become a kind of ghost, haunting the narratives of our recent past and eluding all attempts at exorcism and closure” (626) – published in Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, vol. 67, nos. 3-4 (2019): 595-634. For a fascinating first-person account of how Imelda Marcos acquired a copy of the Beams tapes after her personal agent (a priest, no less) failed to get one during Beams’s press conference, see “How Imelda Confirmed Ferdinand Marcos’ Affair with Dovie Beams” by George Sison (Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 5, 2017).

[3] The eponymously titled 1931 Greta Garbo film version (dir. George Fitzmaurice, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) is what I had in mind. It’s necessarily fictionalized, but then most accounts of Margaretha Zelle MacLeod’s transgressions have been unreliable, inflected by World War I’s divisive geopolitical conflicts. The Garbo character remains memorable not only because of the actor’s beauty and performative skill, but because of how the far-from-guiltless Mata Hari decides to endanger her life for the sake of the soldier who remains unaware (literally blinded) to the end, of how faithfully she kept her vow to him. The closest to an actual Dovie Beams cinematic treatment is the masterly film à clef directed by Lino Brocka and scripted by Ricky Lee, titled Gumapang Ka sa Lusak [Dirty Affair] (Viva Films, 1990).

[4] The fact that the regime, presumably with the covert sanction of the US, could also deploy agents capable of “disappearing” renegades like Primitivo Mijares, who wrote extensively about Beams and other Marcos dalliances in the original edition of The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos (San Francisco: Union Square Publications, 1976), might have factored in Beams’s predicaments. Although again, short of any definitive disclosure in any form from her, the most we can indulge in on the matter are speculative exercises. In fact as early as 1973, she announced that she was working on a manuscript titled Dovie Beams by Me; during her 1986 interviews, she mentioned that it was already 1,500 pages long (see Patrick J. Killen, “Memo to ‘Freddie’: Dovie Has Some Interesting Tapes,” United Press International, January 31, 1986). A book with that title still has to materialize, however.

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Book Texts – Non-Film Reviews

Home Sweet Home

In My Father’s House
Playwright Elsa Martinez Coscolluela
Directed by Tony Mabesa

As an extra-active in-house editor for the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), I was once assigned to the screening committee of the third (and last) scriptwriting contest. Only two winners were chosen, both of which were endorsed to the board of judges by none other than yours truly. The inside news, however, was that the preferred top-prize winner was disqualified on a double technicality: not only did the script proposal require a more-than-modest budget (for which the consideration of a few other entries would have to be set aside), it would also have duplicated the themes and setting of the first ECP production, Oro, Plata, Mata. Flashforward to the present, when one of the contest’s judges, out of a refusal to allow the ECP’s demise to negate its noteworthy aims, convinces the writer of the said screenplay to revise her work for the medium out of which he has made a lifetime career: the theater.

11011Like Oro, Plata, Mata, In My Father’s House has seen rough commercial sailing. And if we take an optimistic course and regard its ultimate destination as the celluloid product it was originally intended to be, then its odyssey from judges’ favorite to future film product through the legitimate stage may well be one of the most unusual transitions in contemporary local culture. To be sure, In My Father’s House stands several cuts above the disturbing succession of stage plays that actually aim for ultimate preservation on film (or even just video, via television). Our local playwriting contests have much to answer for in this case; works are judged according to how they read, not how they may be performed, and in several depressing instances writers who employed misappropriated cinematic techniques tended to impress their respective jurors, who should have known better.

11011I hope I don’t sound too condemnatory in pointing out that these cinematically obsessed playwrights were in a sense the predecessors of our so-called independent film practitioners, who dabble in media or formats apparently alien from the mainstream movie industry, but actually aim for stable long-term employment within (as evidenced in their output as well as the number who grab too eagerly at opportunities for commercial film assignments). Nothing wrong with having to survive, I submit, except that sometimes the struggle has resulted all too often in a hierarchism of media forms and assignments: this here’s a mere short film (or play or article), it could get me some attention so I could get away with a little slothful artisanship – after all, this isn’t the big time … yet.

11011Hence my sense of appreciation and gratitude for In My Father’s House. The play’s film-script origins are still detectable, particularly in the inordinate number of blackouts (equivalent to the film medium’s fadeouts), but the whole presentation has amounted to a cherishable and well-grounded discourse on the dehumanizing effects of war on the best intentions of those caught up in it. The story details the plight of a Negros-based family, chronicling the members’ confrontation with the realities of the Japanese occupation from the start of the war until the impending liberation (or, as per Renato Constantino, the re-occupation) of the country by American forces. The siblings find themselves in opposing camps, though hardly by the passive nature of their characters: one realizes firsthand the effectiveness of the enemy’s brutality and decides to collaborate to preclude whatever further harm may be committed against his loved ones, while another is outraged by the very same reports, though from a comfortable distance, and decides to join the guerrilla movement.

11011The worst that the invading forces visit upon the family is the occupation of their residence by an officer, who is never seen; instead he is represented by his clown of a deputy. In the end the tragedy that befalls the family is directly caused by the guerrilla offering to save his collaborator-brother but inadvertently betraying him to a rival unit. An acknowledgment of classical traditions pervades the entire production, with deaths occurring offstage and the action being continually summarized and assessed by the survivors. The only onstage tragedy, the suicide of the fiancée who could endure repeated rape by the Japanese officer but not the contempt of her guerrilla-lover, serves to maintain the essential context of the drama – i.e., that the enemy, no matter how harmless in appearance, is capable, on a near-bestial level, of the civilized but still-harmful actuations of his captive hosts, and that in a sense this doesn’t make him any different from them after all.

11011Such perceptions about the wartime behavior of the bourgeoisie could only have come from finely observed and fully felt experience, and whatever the arguments against the dangers of romanticism, there ought to be room for such theses in the first place, the better to form possible answers from. In My Father’s House can be taken on its own, with the reservations (and then some) I already mentioned, but it can also be appreciated as a creative inspiration’s long (and unfinished) journey to realization. I suggest viewing it as a companion piece to Oro, Plata, Mata, with the notion of the voyeuristic peek into the bourgeoisie’s not-so-discreet charms this time replaced by an Areopagitica of sorts, a plea for tolerance and soberness from a people who are still figuring out what to do with themselves.

[First published December 2, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Time and Again

Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique
By Bliss Cua Lim
(Durham: Duke University Press, 2009)

No less than feminist film and trauma specialist E. Ann Kaplan has hailed Translating Time as one of the most influential books in the field of cinema studies, a distinction made more remarkable by the fact that Bliss Cua Lim’s volume has only recently been published. Kaplan cites Lim’s achievement in drawing on “genre theory, feminist film research, postcolonialism, and feminist cine-psychoanalysis to think through the meanings that emerge in films about fantasy” (2009: 190). Well on its way to solidifying its early stature as a classic in the field, Translating Time bears the prestigious imprint of a John Hope Franklin Book Award, an annual honor given by Duke University Press to four books selected from the hundred-plus titles that it publishes every year. (Personal disclosure: Lim and I were classmates and fellow Fulbright scholars in graduate school.)

11011Prior to Translating Time, Lim was known for her volumes of poetry in her native Philippines, and her expertise in this mode of expression enhances the present book’s correlation of seemingly disparate concerns, unified by the much-vilified yet inevitably overriding element of pleasure – the same factor that links Translating Time with an impressive array of feminist predecessors, from Laura Mulvey (who, in calling for the destruction of pleasure in Classical Hollywood, motivated an entire generation of scholars to revaluate its importance and function) down to the present and, from what we can discern from current media studies trends, far into the future.

11011Translating Time reworks Henri Bergson’s philosophical critique of so-called homogeneous time, regarded as the primary ideological mechanism for the historical ascendancy of European modernity, by infusing it with a postcolonial critique. Lim recounts how, starting with the late thirteenth-century invention of precise timepieces, homogeneous time became ensconced as the standard universal method of reckoning temporal experience, pervading all available areas of human endeavor within and outside Europe via the mechanisms of state control and colonial expansion. Crucially, she argues that homogeneous time overlays human societies with the twinned processes of measuring everyone, without exception, according to the timeline of Eurocentric development, as well as excluding from historical significance any form of anachronism – thus resulting, for example, in the refusal to accept people falling within certain categories – such as the “savage,” the “primitive,” the “superstitious,” and the “premodern” – as belonging to the present. Homogeneous time means that people who exist, as it were, in periods marked as “past” by Eurocentric development cannot be considered of this moment, unless they were “modernized” one way or another. This reminds me of one of the standard arguments that links the colonizer with the rapist: the purported victim was merely being claimed by patriarchy in order to protect it (the nation) or her (the woman) from other claimants, as well as to provide it or her with the benefits of modernist progress presumably unavailable to those cursed with “backwardness.” The narrative of the centuries-long quest of homogeneous time for global preeminence would sound fantastic in itself if it were told to, say, a Renaissance-era subject or a contemporary Third-World tribesperson. Lim’s retelling captures the appropriately fantastic quality of the now-seemingly-inexorable advance of this phenomenon.

11011Lim initiates her departure from Bergson’s critique by propounding a concept of immiscible times, which she defines as “multiple times that never quite dissolve into the code of modern time consciousness, discrete temporalities incapable of attaining homogeneity with or full incorporation into a uniform chronological present” (12). As she puts it:

an anti-colonial critique of homogeneous time points out that the modern notion of progress and its corollary, the accusation of noncontemporaneousness, translate multiple ways of inhabiting the world into a single, homogeneous time. This translation is arguably a deliberate mistranslation in that the allochronic gesture – the appraisal of the other as an anachronism – served as a potent temporal justification for the colonial project. (83)

Tellingly, inasmuch as Bergson had prematurely denounced film as the culmination of the popular perception of homogeneous time, Lim finds useful samples of immiscible times imbricated in the cinema of the fantastic. By her own admission, she incorporates Bergson further by resisting him at this juncture, specifically his dismissal of cinema for its collusion with homogenized, spatialized time, as well as its deceptive re-presentation of duration as an atomized succession of still moments.

11011Lest one acquire the misimpression that Lim’s espousal of immiscible heterogeneous times could play into the cynical religious revivalism of conservative political leaders (as exemplified in the U.S. Republican Party’s deplorable turn-of-the-millennium strategies), she takes the trouble to point to examples of what we could obversely term real fantasies, like the studies of Jean and John Comaroff on the “enchantments of capital” (2002: 782-87) in the Third World, wherein “amid glaring asymmetries . . . the enigmatic appearance of ‘wealth without work’ . . . is felt by the disenfranchised in particular to be opaque, occult, spectral” (135).

11011Translating Time is exceptional as an extended study not only for what its so-far mostly western appreciators prize it for, but also for what mainly subaltern scholars will be able to perceive: Lim’s thorough immersion in postcolonial culture, to a point beyond mere familiarity, well within the realm of (for want of more appropriately academic terminology) sheer and unadulterated passion. A disheartening number of cultural studies scholars in particular, once they realize the exploitative potential of the Philippines’s unique status as the U.S.’s only ex-/neo-/post-colony, tend to indulge in the country’s popular culture only to come up with undeniably well-meaning but erroneous, if not preposterous or potentially injurious, interpretations of local phenomena. Perhaps the most famous example was Fredric Jameson’s one-time incursion into Third-World, including Philippine, popular culture in The Geopolitical Aesthetic (1992), whose long list of Filipino objectors included Lim (1993).

11011While explicating her take on Bergson (partly by way of Gilles Deleuze – on which more later), Lim proceeds to survey the fantastic in cinema, beginning with a Philippine “Second Golden Age” prestige production, Mike de Leon’s Itim (1976), coursing through Etienne-Jules Marey’s proto-filmic motion studies and Fatimah Tobing Rony’s personal experimental film On Cannibalism (1994). Her bravura readings of the recent aswang (segmented viscera-sucking monster) horror-film cycle of the Peque Gallaga and Lorenzo Reyes directorial team (commencing with their eponymous 1992 blockbuster), and the female specters of Butch Perez’s Haplos (1982) and Hong Kong filmmaker Stanley Kwan’s Yin ji kau (English title Rouge, 1987), are models of close textual inspections that enrich the too-scant literature on these largely overlooked marvels of Asian film-genre productions, even as she painstakingly develops her notions on the values and limitations of immiscibilities in subaltern cinema.

11011After duly disclosing how early colonial chroniclers insisted on the feminine nature of the aswang as a way of demonizing the baylan (pre-Hispanic female shaman), Lim proceeds to discuss the politicized peasantry’s conflation of World War II’s Japanese occupation army with the contemporary Philippine Constabulary (hence Haplos’s always-already doomed revenant), and acknowledges CIA operative Edward G. Lansdale’s (1972, rpt. 1991) possibly fictional and definitely self-aggrandizing psy-war exploitation of the aswang myth in his counter-insurgency operations in the Philippine countryside. More to the point of feminist interest, Lim owns up to the necessarily patriarchal containment which Haplos’s and Rouge’s resolutions build toward, yet insists on pointing out how the real-life female characters find themselves attracted to their supernatural rivals, to the point of even fusing with the specter, as in the case of the ending of Haplos.

11011In advancing toward Rouge, in fact, Lim might initially appear to be falling into the same predicament of engaging with the unfamiliar that scholars like she and I excoriate overeager outsiders for. Yet Lim’s differences – as woman, as Chinay (Chinese-Filipina), as gender and queer theory specialist – secure for her an enviable position from which to read not just the spectrally inflected relations between Hong Kong as a former crown colony (not quite a nation yet not fully striving for integration) and the People’s Republic of China, but also the role that the larger regional area of East Asia has played vis-à-vis the cannibalization of the Asian horror cycle by Hollywood. By looking at the trajectory of particular examples like Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on (2002) as well as its U.S. remake, The Grudge (Shimizu, 2004), she manages to point out how such a ground-breaking scholar of national cinema as Andrew Higson (1989) “remains regrettably one-sided” (230) in discussing the role of Hollywood:

His argument emphasizes Hollywood’s contributions to national cinema, especially national-popular cinema, but he fails to mention the converse: Hollywood’s debts to other national cinemas, its founding reliance on émigré talent, its appropriation of aesthetic hallmarks, its practices of borrowing and remaking, and its eye on foreign markets. (230)

Just as it had done with earlier film trends in Europe, Hollywood’s appropriation of story material and qualities associated with Asian genre cinemas results in a deracination via the process of transforming “mark[s] of innovation, of originality, of newness or novelty greeted by vigorous, profitable audience demand” into signs of iterability (222-23) that result in a “softening of contrast, the quickly accomplished reduction of the distance between generic innovation and generic repetition” (223).

11011As a detailed demonstration of a home-grown achievement whose qualities would prove immiscible when (as it actually turned out) a Hollywood producer attempted to remake it, Lim discusses a Korean horror film, Kim Ji-woon’s Janghwa, Hongryeon (English title A Tale of Two Sisters, 2003), an experience that “slowly unfurls its secrets, yielding narrative clues and formal motifs whose significances are only apprehended on repeated viewing” (243). The scandal of the DreamWorks remake (Charles and Thomas Guard’s appositely titled The Uninvited, 2009, repudiated by Kim), wherein the production pitch “was based only upon having watched the trailer – not the entire source film – beforehand” (304n), thus resulting in divergent second halves between the two versions, is aggravated by the fact that such a supercilious approach was never even exposed and regarded as a scandal in the first place.

11011Lim concludes her book by recounting similar predicaments experienced by Bergson and a subaltern scholar who explored a postcolonial critique of homogeneous time: Bergson described how, in the midst of writing Time and Free Will, “the hour strikes on a neighboring clock but my inattentive ear does not perceive it” (1889, trans. 2001: 127; qtd.: 247); Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000: 102-03), from another place and period, recounted how an ironically sympathetic historian had wound up distorting a rebel leader’s account of political agency in an anti-colonial uprising, only because the leader had expressed his tribe’s action in supernatural terms. Given such lapses in even the most well-intentioned people’s best efforts, Lim echoes Elizabeth Grosz’s call to restore ontology “to its rightful place at the center of knowledges and social practices, [inasmuch as] the ways in which ontology has been previously conceptualized – as static, fixed, composed of universal principles or ideals, indifferent to history, particularity, or change – require transformation and revitalization” (2005: 5; qtd.: 251).

11011Within the specific area (film studies) that it sets as its donnée, Translating Time fills a gap noticeable in the otherwise densely constructed work of Gilles Deleuze, who had set out in two volumes (1983 and 1985, trans. 1986 and 1989) to reclaim Bergson for film, but whose critique of homogeneous time’s insidious valorization of European modernity is severely blunted by his use of canonical samples from art cinema (mostly European, with the usual Hollywood favorites such as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane [1941], the standard all-time critics’ favorite, thrown in). As a cineaste-come-lately, Deleuze may have been understandably swept up by what David Bordwell (1994) has termed the “standard version of stylistic history” and its aftermath, in which the aesthetic innovations that radicalized film style originated in Europe; such a formulation required the existence of Classical Hollywood film as a mode of practice that had dominated world cinema for the better half of the previous century – and which indeed was challenged and eventually overturned roughly by mid-century Euro art-film practice. What Deleuze could not overcome was the limited range of his subjective universe of western film culture, so when he in effect celebrates the deconstruction of Classical Hollywood film language enabled by filmmakers who could trace their inspiration, if not their training, to such movements as Italian neo-realism, the French New Wave, and avant-garde filmmaking, he is actually upholding a higher stage of modernism over an earlier one – in effect locking his argument within the same sphere of Eurocentrism that he had sought to contest.

11011Several other types of cinema whose recuperation is being spearheaded mostly by feminist critics – trash, porn, camp, in short anything subsumable under “pleasure” including even select Classical Hollywood titles – have already been reinscribed, with varying degrees of success, as emblems of transgression in popular culture. With Translating Time, Lim manages to liberate Bergsonian critique by convincingly demonstrating how resistance to an ultimate western temporal ideal finds its most useful samples in similarly pleasurable products that originate in places far removed from the center. In doing so, she contributes her share to a valiant multi-generational project, one initiated by Bergson himself over a century ago but only recently being tackled in earnest, in acknowledgment of struggles by European and non-European peoples that have somehow persisted all the way to the present. On the one hand, one may argue that this proves that homogeneous time is an exceedingly difficult system to dismantle (and in fact just now I remember telling Lim, when she first described her project to me, that she was confronting an ultimately impossible task). On the other hand, it may be precisely the excessive, extravagant nature of the challenge that has yielded material as wondrous and forward-looking as the works of the authors Lim has engaged, with her own volume taking its rightful place in a deservingly exalted but still-too-short list.

[First published Winter 2009 in Asian Journal of Women’s Studies]

Works Cited

Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. 1889. Trans. F.L. Pogson. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2001.

Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. “Alien-Nation: Zombies, Immigrants, and Millennial Capitalism.” South Atlantic Quarterly 101.4 (2002): 779-805.

De Leon, Mike, dir. (1976), Itim [Black / Rites of May]. Scr. Clodualdo del Mundo Jr. and Gil Quito. Cinema Artists, 1976.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image. 1983 and 1985. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson, Barbara Habberjam, and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986 and 1989.

Gallaga, Peque, and Lore Reyes, dirs. (1992), Aswang [Viscera Sucker]. Scr. Pen P. Medina and Jerry Lopez Sineneng. Regal Films, 1992.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Guard, Charles, and Thomas Guard, dirs. The Uninvited. Scr. Craig Rosenberg, Doug Miro, and Carlo Bernard. DreamWorks SKG, Cold Spring Pictures, MacDonald/Parkes Productions, Montecity Picture Co., Vertigo Entertainment, Medien 5 Filmproduktion, 2009.

Higson, Andrew. “The Concept of National Cinema.” Screen 30.4 (1989): 36-46.

Jameson, Fredric. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Kaplan, E. Ann. “Toward Interdisciplinary Film Studies.” Cinema Journal 49.1 (2009): 188-91.

Kim Ji-woon, dir. & scr. Janghwa, Hongryeon [A Tale of Two Sisters]. B.O.M. Film Productions & Masulpiri Films, 2003.

Kwan, Stanley, dir. Yin ji kau [Rouge]. Scr. Lillian Lee. Golden Harvest and Golden Way Films Ltd., 1987.

Lansdale, Edward G. In the Midst of Wars: An American’s Mission to Southeast Asia. 1972. New York: Fordham University Press, 1991.

Lim, Bliss Cua [as Felicidad C. Lim]. “Perfumed Nightmare and the Perils of Jameson’s ‘New Political Culture.’” Philippine Critical Forum 1.1 (1993): 24-37.

Perez, Antonio Jose, dir. Haplos [Caress]. Scr. Ricardo Lee. Mirick Films International, 1982.

Rony, Fatimah Tobing, dir. & scr. On Cannibalism. Women Make Movies, 1994.

Shimizu, Takashi, dir. & scr. Ju-on [Ju-on: The Grudge]. Pioneer LDC, Nikkatsu, Oz Co., & Xanadeux Co., 2002.

———, dir. (2004), The Grudge. Scr. Stephen Susco. Senator International, Ghost House Pictures, Vertigo Entertainment, Renaissance Pictures, & Fellah Pictures, 2004.

Welles, Orson, dir. Citizen Kane. Scr. Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles. Mercury Productions & RKO Radio Pictures, 1941.

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Disorder & Constant Sorrow

Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years
By Susan F. Quimpo & Nathan Gilbert Quimpo, with David Ryan F. Quimpo, Norman F. Quimpo, Emilie Mae Q. Wickett, Lillian F. Quimpo, Elizabeth Q. Bulatao, Caren Q. Castañeda, Jun F. Quimpo, & Maria Cristina Pargas-Bawagan
(Manila: Anvil Publishing, 2012)

In the process of finalizing the current issue of Kritika Kultura, Ateneo’s online journal, on Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night, I went over some of the notes I took during the too-few interviews I had with the director. One of the statements he made, that our stories as a people are better told as a collective, became the basis of several articles and an entire dissertation I wrote on the film and its author. The format, which we can call by its description “multiple-character,” is a tricky one to pull off. Seemingly “social” fictions like Gone with the Wind or, closer to home, Noli Me Tangere typically begin with a large group of characters, then reduce the narrative threads until they focus on a hero, sometimes with a romantic interest or against an antihero, or (in the case of GWTW) a love triangle—which, by presenting a character torn between two options, invites singular identification and thus maintains the heroic arrangement.

11011The multicharacter film format actually originated in literature, so it would not be surprising to find it deployed more readily in fiction and theater, where the “star” demands of cinema can be more easily ignored. The more ambitious samples, like Manila by Night (and Bernal’s avowed model, Nashville), succeed in portraying, via the interaction of its characters, an abstract, singular, social character that embodies the conflicts, frustrations, and aspirations that the milieu text’s figures represent. The unexpected delight of my current Pinoy reading experience, in this wise, was in recognizing several of these qualities (and then some) in a recent book, titled Subversive Lives. Listing Susan F. Quimpo and Nathan Gilbert Quimpo as authors, the Anvil publication actually comprises contributions from the Quimpo siblings and the widow of their brother.

11011The Quimpos achieved fame (or notoriety, depending on one’s perspective) for several of the siblings having participated in the anti-dictatorship movement during the martial-law regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Since the only genuine opposition during most of this period was provided by the outlawed Communist underground, the Quimpo family, by its association, underwent dramatic upheavals, acute heartbreak, and occasional but still-too-rare moments of grace that would appear almost fantastic had the book been announced as a fiction. The fact that these events actually happened, related by the individuals who directly experienced them, provides the reader with a sense of how irreparably damaging authoritarianism has always been for our particular national experience.

11011I remember how, as a student at the state university, I could always rely on the fact that my smartest classmates would be sympathetic, if not involved outright, with student-activist causes—in sharp contrast with the situation I later observed as a teacher. Subversive Lives provides a panoramic chronicle of how the militarized dictatorship, profitable only to foreign and mercenary local business and religious interests, upheld the worst legacies of colonial education and magic-patriarchal morality: backward thugs armed, fed, and protected by the machinery of an irredeemably corrupted state were allowed to wield life-or-death mastery over the very people in whom, by virtue of their capacity to exercise discernment, creativity, and determination, the future of the nation would have resided.

11011The Quimpo children, in this respect, may be regarded as representative of the country’s best and brightest, had they emerged in another place, another time. Starting out as stereotypical overachievers, the only source of pride of their financially distressed parents, they grew up just when the storm clouds of tyranny were gathering; having moved to a cramped apartment near the presidential palace, they were initially witnesses, then active participants, in the increasingly violent protest actions then taking place in their neighborhood.

11011One of the most powerful dramatic undercurrents in the book is how the Quimpos’ parents coped with the spectacle of several of their children giving up their scholarships, then their bright futures, by moving from school dropouts to wanted figures, hunted down and tortured by the military. One of the sons recollects his reconciliation with his father at the latter’s deathbed, and his story suddenly breaks free of the storytelling mode, addressing his father in the present as if he were still alive, and as if no reader would wonder: “Talk to me. I’m your son…. Why don’t you express all your heartaches, disappointments, and frustrations?” The siblings never shake free the realization that the paths they chose were not what their parents had hoped for them. If their parents lived long enough, they would have seen that the Quimpo children had been able to attain impressive career trajectories, covering several continents and participating in impactful projects (of which the book serves as group memoir) that would have been the envy of the more privileged families with their utterly predictable and vision-impoverished choices.

11011Even the sister who had opted for life as an Opus Dei numerary found inevitable parallels between her Order and the fascist system that her siblings were struggling against. The story of the retrieval of their brother’s body is hers to tell, and one would probably wind up smiling, in the face of the long-anticipated heartbreak, at how she had managed to muster enough reserves of strength to confront and intimidate the military officers who felt like aggravating her and her grieving female companions, just for the heck of it. When, famished after the confrontation, one of them mistakenly brings one too many orders of Coke and the driver of their vehicle innocently asks whom the spare bottle is for, then they turn toward their brother’s body and cry all over again, I could not help turning as well toward the best moments in Pinoy cinema, where our film-authors are so casually able to incite these tender combinations of humor and warmth amid overwhelming sadness.

11011The book ends with a controversy that has shaken up, and continues to do so, the Philippine revolutionary movement. The Quimpos who were then still involved were major participants, and express the opinion that the leadership they challenged had taken on qualities of the dictatorship that they had fought against and (in a sense) succeeded in ousting. Like the best Filipino multicharacter texts, Manila by Night foremost among them, Subversive Lives is sprawling, occasionally meandering, sometimes indulgent, and necessarily open-ended. It is also gripping, heartfelt, insightful, and forward-looking, so much so that the aforementioned “flaws” would be a small price to pay for its still-rare literary largesse, just as the Quimpo children’s rebellion has made the country’s journey to a more meaningful present a trip for which we as their witnesses ought to be grateful.

[First published September 18, 2012, as “The Marcos Dictatorship and the Irreparable Damage to a Family and the Filipino Experience” in The FilAm]

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The Novel Pinoy Novel

Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata
By Ricky Lee
Quezon City: Philippine Writers Studio Foundation, 2011

The results of the recently concluded American presidential elections seemed guaranteed to make everyone happy—except for the Republican Party and its now less-than-majority supporters. American conservatives could have spared themselves their historic loss if they had taken the trouble to inspect the goings-on in a country their nation had once claimed for itself, the Republic of the Philippines. The admittedly oversimplified lesson that Philippine cultural experience demonstrates is: when conservative values seek to overwhelm a population too dispossessed to have anything to lose, the pushback has the potential to reach radical proportions.

11011This is my way of assuring myself that a serendipitous sample, Ricky Lee’s recent novel Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata (Amapola in 65 Chapters), could only have emerged in a culture that had undergone Old-World colonization followed by successful American experimentations with colonial and neocolonial arrangements, enhanced by the installation of a banana republic-style dictatorship followed by a middle-force uprising, leaving the country utterly vulnerable to the dictates of globalization and unable to recover except by means of exporting its own labor force—which, as it turns out, proved to be an unexpectedly successful way of restoring some developmental sanguinity, some stable growth achieved via the continual trauma of yielding its best and brightest to foreign masters.

11011Si Amapola is one of those rare works that will fulfill anyone who takes the effort to learn the language in which it is written. A serviceable translation might emerge sooner or later, but the novel’s impressive achievement in commingling a wide variety of so-called Filipino—from formal (Spanish-inflected) Tagalog to urban street slang to class-conscious (and occasionally hilariously broken) Taglish to fast-mutating gay lingo—will more than just provide a sampling of available linguistic options; it will convince the patriotically inclined that the national language in itself is at last capable of staking its claim as a major global literary medium. In practical terms, the message here is: if you know enough of the language to read casually, or enjoy reading aloud with friends or family—run out and get a copy of the book for the holidays. The novels of Lee, only two of them so far, have revived intensive, even obsessive reading in the Philippines, selling in the tens of thousands (in a country where sales of a few hundreds would mark a title as a bestseller), with people claiming to have read them several times over and classrooms and offices spontaneously breaking into unplanned discussions of his fictions; lives get transformed as people assimilate his characters’ personalities, and Lee himself stated that a few couples have claimed to him that their acquaintance started with a mutual admiration of his work.

11011This is the type of response that, in the recent past, only movies could generate—and the connection may well have been preordained, since Lee had previously made his mark on the popular imagination as the country’s premier screenwriter. The difference between the written word and the filmed script, per Lee, is in the nature of the reader’s participation: film buffs (usually as fans of specific performers) would strive to approximate the costume, performance, and delivery of their preferred characters, while readers would assimilate a novel’s characters, interpreting them in new (literally novel) ways, sometimes providing background and future developments, and even shifting from one personage to another.

11011Si Amapola affords entire worlds for its readers to inhabit, functioning as the culmination of its author’s attempts to break every perceived boundary in art (and consequently in society) in its pursuit of truth and terror, pain and pleasure. For Lee, the process began with his last few major film scripts (notably for Lino Brocka’s multi-generic Gumapang Ka sa Lusak [Dirty Affair]; 1990) and first emerged in print with his comeback novellette “Kabilang sa mga Nawawala” (Among the Missing; 1988). More than his previous novel Para Kay B (O Kung Paano Dinevastate ng Pag-ibig ang 4 Out of 5 sa Atin) (For B [Or How Love Devastated 4 Out of 5 of Us]; 2008), Si Amapola is a direct descendant of “Kabilang,” at that point the language’s definitive magic-realist narrative.

11011Despite this stylistic connection, Si Amapola is sui generis, impossible to track because of its fantastically extreme dimensions that abhor any notion of middle ground. The contradictions begin with the title character, a queer cross-dressing performer who possesses two “alters”: Isaac, a macho man (complete with an understandably infatuated girlfriend), and Zaldy, a closeted yuppie. His mother, Nanay Angie, took him home after she found him separated from his baby sister and, notwithstanding the absence of blood relations and any familial connections, raised him (and his other personalities) with more love and acceptance than most children are able to receive from their own “normal” relatives. A policeman named Emil, a fan of real-life Philippine superstar Nora Aunor, then introduces Amapola to his Lola Sepa, a woman who had fallen in love with Andres Bonifacio, the true (also real-life) but tragically betrayed hero of the 19th-century revolution against Spanish colonization. Lola Sepa moved through time, using a then-recent technology—the flush toilet—as her portal, surviving temporal and septic transitions simply because she, like her great-grandchild Amapola, happens to be a manananggal, a self-segmenting viscera-sucking mythological creature.

11011Already these details suggest issues of personal identity and revolutionary history, high drama and low humor, cinematic immediacy and philosophical discourse, and a melange of popular genres that do not even bother to acknowledge their supposed mutual incompatibilities; if you can imagine, for example, that a pair of manananggal lovers could be so abject and lustful as to engage in monstrous intercourse in mid-air, you can expect that Lee will take you there. The novel’s interlacing with contemporary Philippine politics provides a ludic challenge for those familiar with recent events; those who would rather settle for a rollicking grand time, willing to be fascinated, repulsed, amused, and emotionally walloped by an unmitigated passion for language, country, and the least and therefore the greatest among us, will be rewarded by flesh-and-blood (riven or otherwise) characters enacting a social drama too fantastic to be true, yet ultimately too true to be disavowed.

11011At the end of the wondrously self-contained narrative, you might be able to look up some related literature on the novel and read about Lee announcing a sequel. Pressed about this too-insistent meta-contradiction of how something that had already ended could manage to persist in an unendurable (because unpredictable) future time, he replied: “Amapola the character exists in two parts. Why then can’t he have two lives?” Nevertheless my advice remains, this time as a warning: get the present book and do not wait for a two-in-one consumption. The pleasure, and the pain, might prove too much to bear by then.

[First published November 9, 2012, as “High Drama and Low Humor in Ricky Lee’s New Fiction about a Cross-Dressing Mananggal” in The FilAm]

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Seeds in the Garden of Letters

The End of National Cinema: Filipino Film at the Turn of the Century
By Patrick F. Campos
(Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2016)

It would be easy to subject a text like Patrick F. Campos’s The End of National Cinema to critical reservation, given the scope of the material and the magnitude of the challenges it sets out to confront.[1] Subtitled Filipino Film at the Turn of the Century, the book is definitely the most voluminous debut publication by any Filipino film practitioner, weighing in at 665 pages (including bibliography and index) plus thirteen preliminary pages. Unlike a few initial film books, however, The End of National Cinema (hereafter ENC) is neither a dramatic work nor a celebrity appreciation; it resembles the more typical product, a compilation of film reviews and criticism—except in this case, what we get is a surprisingly small total of nine articles, ten if we include the similarly lengthy introduction. For 550 compact pages of body text, this works out to an average of fifty-five pages per article, a fact that makes possible one more distinction for the book: it actually is a personal anthology—but of monographs, rather than articles.

11011An awareness of the complete life cycle of the academic paper might help us better appreciate Campos’s project. An author would typically draft one for a class or seminar, present it at conferences (preferably published in proceedings), submit it to a journal, and offer it afterward to an anthology of similar material; once the author has made a name, she may decide to compile her articles in one volume in order to provide researchers with the equivalent convenience of a one-stop shop for her material. With ENC, Campos in effect skipped the stage of handing out his journal-published papers to appear in various volumes, thus making himself vulnerable to the question of what authority he had in assuming that he could start out in such a grand manner.

11011At this point I will have to disclose that I recognized two of the ENC articles, the first (post-intro) and the last one, as Campos’s contributions to special journal collections that I had edited. The first, “Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night as Thirdspace,” was so innovative and forward-looking that I knew it would make a near-perfect closing piece for the issue. The rest of the chapters deal with auteurs, specifically Mike de Leon in Chapter 2 and Kidlat Tahimik in Chapter 3; the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival and its attendant Film Congress in Chapter 4; filmic topographies divided between urban realism in Chapter 5 and rural landscapes in Chapter 6; cinematic imaginaries focused on folklore in Chapter 7; historical memory in Chapter 8; and ghost narratives in Chapter 9. Despite Campos’s disavowal of any linearly constructed design, one can already perceive here some gestures toward expanding the book’s coverage, from traditional local concerns (auteurs and film events) to transnational films and issues. In ENC’s introductory essay, after which the book is titled, Campos articulates his argument that national cinema is at an “end”—not so much in terms of the virtually complete phaseout of celluloid production, but rather in the sense that Philippine cinema can be better understood in relation to political and cultural developments in the larger Southeast Asian region and its interaction with Western-determined and -dominated global cinema. His final deployment of the term “end”—as a call to alertness to the purpose of discourses on national cinema—affirms his claim that ENC was not in itself meant to provide any definitive kind of closure.

11011In fact, the book best functions as a quite effective starting point for any film devotee who seeks to discover the contemporary concerns of Filipino film scholarship. I would not suggest that the casual reader run through everything in it in one go (although I had to do exactly that in order to provide a review), and Campos, not surprisingly, makes the same recommendation. Yet the act of finishing the chapters in brisk succession allowed me the advantage of drawing up a list of urgent research tasks in my mind, with the pleasure (and, to be honest, the frustration) of finding ENC carefully and methodically tackling each item on the list.

11011Not every attempt in ENC is as resounding a success as the first chapter, but the ones that work demonstrate Campos’s ability to evaluate a research challenge and formulate a compelling strategy as his response. The Mike de Leon chapter evinces his training in film and literature in his patiently close comparative readings of the director’s output, but his Kidlat Tahimik article breaks down the academically prescribed distance between author and artist, and provides exceptional readings that are enhanced by the access that the director, his family, and his hometown granted him. In conducting survey-like introductions to the other, later chapters, Campos similarly manages to highlight crucial similarities and differences in groups of films—an exercise that can sometimes be let down by any film collection that cannot make sufficiently significant contributions beyond belonging to a notable, novel, and rarely covered area (which is what happens in his discussion of rural-set digital-era titles—[Campos 366-407]).

11011At a certain point in perusing the volume, I realized I could also name-check the several active critics and scholars—including, again for proper disclosure, myself—who emerged (or, in my case, re-emerged) since the book’s coverage, the turn of the century. At the same time, I initially appreciated Campos’s desistance from critiquing his colleagues (who, after all, would also be his rivals), but I started getting the impression that his citations would eventually amount to merely a comprehensive review of related literature. At about this point, almost midway through the book, he brings up a startlingly irresponsible remark made by a major culture official, at that time the dean of his college at the national university, during a Cinemalaya Film Congress (Campos 241), to the effect that independent films should reject “Hollywood” strategies (e.g., suturing) as well as their “middle-class” audiences, and proceed to elevate the mass audience’s film preferences by resorting to alternative aesthetics, as exemplified by the alienating devices and durationally extreme output of Lav Diaz (Tolentino, “Indie Cinema Bilang Kultural na Kapital”). In dismantling the aforementioned position’s premises in the next few paragraphs, the critique Campos performs is subtle, constructive, elegant, and firmly rooted in lived experience, so much so that I found myself looking forward to (and dreading) the time when he would begin clearing more space for his own ideas by being more firmly selective about existent abstractions in and on Philippine cinema.

11011ENC is, therefore, a conceptual coup, ambitious in providing an overview of scholarly urgencies in contemporary Philippine film studies, modest and painstaking in pursuit of its objectives, ingenious in re-imagining problems that do not seem to promise much in the way of providing conclusive answers, so that these become worthy of careful consideration. At one point, Campos juxtaposes two historians and uncovers an exceptional instance where Renato Constantino, the more avowedly Marxist author, falls short compared to Zeus Salazar, in terms of their discourses on popular Philippine culture (Campos 420-21). In two other separate instances, he astutely points out how two filmmakers usually touted as Lino Brocka’s heirs—Kidlat Tahimik (for his international recognition) and Jeffrey Jeturian (for his movies on the urban underclass)—are actually closer in spirit, by virtue of their use of humor and intellectual distance, to Ishmael Bernal (Campos 155, 290). In fact, given ENC’s consistently clear-eyed and occasionally brilliant insights, lay readers may find it difficult, if not impossible, to perceive whatever errors or inconsistencies the book may have.[2] After finishing the volume, one could reconsider the author’s introduction—disparaged by an early reviewer (Mai 306) as leading to material that Campos addresses only toward the end—and realize that it in effect constitutes a study plan that extends beyond the coverage of the text. ENC thereby functions as Campos’s scholarly mission statement as well as his proof of qualifications. Each of the chapters could serve as a blueprint for a sustained thesis-length effort, and if all other scholars of Philippine cinema suddenly and simultaneously turn inactive right now for whatever reason, film studies in the country will still be able to proceed on the strength of Campos’s forthcoming contributions.

11011I would prefer, however, to suggest one further direction, one that we can glean from Campos’s timely correction of his senior’s conflicted bias (mentioned earlier) regarding art and populism. In ENC, the closest that Campos comes to any recent mainstream output is in the chapter wherein he inspected the folkloric roots of the Enteng Kabisote series. I regard this to be as noteworthy by academic standards as the rest of the book. But while thereby insightful, the argument that the films hinged on the ethnoepic tradition (specifically the Sulod Labaw Donggon saga) would have minimal bearing on the movies’ stature as Christmas-festival audience-pleasers, from the perspective of its makers and consumers. It were as if Campos still needed to step away from film-specific approaches like generic pleasure, narrative design, and multimedia star construction even when these quotidian concerns already inhered in the texts’ blockbuster status and demanded to be taken almost exclusively in those terms. An even more extensive area of practice—what could arguably be the “real” Philippine cinema in terms of audience attendance and box-office results—would be the romantic comedies that have become the closest to a surefire guarantee of return on investment in local film production since the turn of the century. Campos’s determination to pursue national cinema to its ends, beyond the limits of medium, technology, geography, and period, would provide him with the kind of handle that he wielded when he started the book by discussing Manila by Night, a movie packaged as a mainstream commercial release during its time. To extrapolate from ENC, the movement he seems to be making—from periphery to exterior—would yield greater benefits if the center became his ultimate long-term target.

[First published July-December 2017, in Humanities Diliman: A Philippine Journal of Humanities]

Notes

[1] From my Facebook announcement of October 26, 2017: “Essential personal disclosures, aside from the ones in the review: Campos and I were technically non-colleagues at the University of the Philippines Film Institute, since he joined the faculty after I left. Also, as editor of Humanities Diliman, his only participation in this article was in acceding to my suggestion that I review his book; all the editing, proofreading, and peer-reviewing coordination tasks were conducted entirely by HD staff members. In fact I was the one who caught a minor inaccuracy in my first draft – when as book author, he could have been the one to point it out to me. (Which means, whether he read the submission or not, he maintained a hands-off approach.)”

[2] Since the chapters were intended to be capable of existing independent of one another, a question such as the zero-point of digital cinema yields varying responses. Campos first mentions Jon Red’s Still Lives (1999), then Mike de Leon’s Bilanggo sa Dilim (1986), then Cris Pablo’s Duda (2003) in different chapters (1, 98, and 236 respectively); all three are of course valid entries depending on how “first” is defined. Only one name, Ditto Sarmiento (actually Abraham Jr., hence the term “ditto”), is written as “Lito” (99), and only one picture, from Raymond Red’s 1984 short “Hikab,” is mistakenly presented as a still from Red’s 1983 debut “Ang Magpakailanman” (230). The text also uses “self-reflexive” apparently to mean “reflexive,” from a popular semantic slippage (reflexive meaning self-reflective). On the other hand, on the basis of a single run-through, there is a total of zero errors in the use of cultural and film-technological terms, including that of “reification,” a word occasionally misapplied by a prominent authority in the field.

Works Cited

Campos, Patrick F. The End of National Cinema: Filipino Film at the Turn of the Century. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2016.

Constantino, Renato. Synthetic Culture and Development. Quezon City: Foundation for Nationalist Studies, 1985.

Mai, Nadin. “The End of National Cinema in the Philippines?” Kritika Kultura 28 (February 2017): 305-09.

Salazar, Zeus. “Ang Kulturang Pilipino sa Harap ng mga Institusyong Panlipunan sa Pelikulang Bakbakan [Philippine Culture in the Context of Social Institutions in the Action Movie].” Unang Pagtingin sa Pelikulang Bakbakan: Tatlong Sanaysay nina Zeus Salazar, Prospero Covar, Agustin Sotto [First Glimpse of the Action Movie: Three Essays by Zeus Salazar, Prospero Covar, Agustin Sotto]. Manila: Museo ng Kalinangang Pilipino, 1989.

Tolentino, Rolando B. “Indie Cinema Bilang Kultural na Kapital [Indie Cinema as Cultural Capital].” Rolando Tolentino WordPress site (August 11, 2008).

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Pelikula Review of Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic (2017)

The following is a translation of Chuckberry J. Pascual’s “Mahalaga ang Marami: Rebyu ng Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic ni Joel David [The Masses Matter: A Review of Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic by Joel David],” published in the journal Pelikula [Film]: A Journal of Philippine Cinema 5 (2020), pp. 76-77. The excerpted pages may be found on this link, while the complete issue may be found on the journal website.

Joel David’s Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic (2017) may be read in many ways, because like the multiple-character film it champions, the book also offers a myriad of narratives and discourses.

11011Here’s an example: film is history. David links the film narrative with the story of the nation, which may be read as a continuation of the assertion of film attendance as our national pastime. And why not? In the first chapter, David mapped how the histories of film as well as of the Philippines share the same umbilical cord. And its Janus-like opposite, rarely mentioned because of how painful it is to articulate and accept: the colonial nature of the country (also reflected in how Bernal’s work builds on the innovation of Robert Altman’s Nashville). David provides more of such explications and recollections in the book, as in his take on the common view of the years between the two Golden Ages of Philippine Cinema. In contrast with Lumbera’s pronouncement that this was a period of “rampant commercialism and artistic decline,” David counters that “In fact, the 1960s was marked by a pioneering, taboo-breaking, politically charged vulgarity never seen before or since in the country, which is essential to explaining why the Second Golden Age (1975-86) held far more promise and managed to meet more expectations than the first.” This revelation is significant because it deals with the same period where Manila by Night is set, particularly its narrative emphasis on genders and sexualities of individuals considered outsiders, eccentric, if not riffraff.

11011In historicizing Manila by Night, David gives weight to Bernal’s biographical background. (It may be tempting to use the word “development,” but like his film, Bernal did not evolve in linear fashion. As David put it, Manila by Night was a “mid-career work” even if it did not mark the start or the end of Bernal’s tinkering with multiple-character format films.) And Bernal and his film will never be fully comprehended unless we consider his contemporary, Lino Brocka. David correlates Manila by Night with Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag [Manila: In the Claws of Neon], and it turns out that the latter was also criticized for its stance on the issue of gender and sexuality (although eventually the controversy could be problematized: David unveils the “homoerotic” aspect of Ave Perez Jacob’s essay and itemizes the reasons for considering the anti-queerness of Maynila), though the film was nevertheless successful in obtaining the appreciation of the public and various institutions and garnered several distinctions. Whereas Bernal’s film negotiated a trickier passage: the censors mangled several scenes, while the critics upheld it for its political content and undervalued its offbeat aesthetics. David also brings up a comparison of the personas of the two filmmakers: Bernal was effeminate and loquacious, Brocka was stern and largely avoided local interviews.

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11011This then is an additional discourse that the book proffers: that film is an art. Integral to understanding this principle is the discussion of form, of craft. Per David, the representation of characters and their queer narratives are not the only means by which Manila by Night derives its impact, inasmuch as these are grounded in the film’s narrative structure and formal elements. In recognizing the political potential inherent in Bernal’s film style – which was initially regarded by critics as a directorial weakness, especially when set against Brocka and their other contemporary Mike de Leon – and once again, David clarifies – reminds us – that substance and form are not discrete properties, and in fact both are essentially inextricably linked. In his words, “Bernal determined that documentary aesthetics would provide the most apposite (or the least objectionable) way of matching what was, after all, Western-sourced technology with Third World realities.” This actualizes a recuperation from Manila by Night’s critical setback in being regarded as a political tract, and demonstrates as well the power of appropriation: the same style that aimed to capture “actualities” – inclusive of the output of the likes of Dean C. Worcester and Thomas Alva Edison – via a technology that was once deployed [by Americans] to occupy and subjugate, was exploited in turn by Bernal, a representative of the once-colonized population, for liberative purposes. The said appropriation though was not straitlaced – it was noisome and occasionally flirtatious, and was thereby misrecognized as “slapdash” and “flawed.” (How many folks would be able to perceive the reflexive sequence that David points out as more than a series of in-jokes at first glance?) But when beheld at length, one can finally realize how much more sophisticated this style is than the ones utilized by movies that are considered polished and perfected.

11011This leads us to the third discourse we can derive from the book: a film is its characters. Most of the industry’s output prior to the Second Golden Age featured singular heroes, but eventually, the viewing public also accepted the presence of several other characters. One reason David indicates is the resemblance of theaters to the churches set up during the Spanish colonial era. This is an interesting and enlightening proposition, more so because of its several implications – that audiences remain obedient, observant yet defiant in the same instance (only one God yet several saints, only one altar yet several objects of worship) – juxtaposed against his reading of Manila by Night’s productive deconstruction of our traditional notions regarding character, his provocative assertion of the film’s lesbianic orientation. As he writes, “the constant shifting of identification from one subject to another without any singular subject predominating enables the envisioning of a social formation – an abstract super-character that is literally socially constructed.” From this point, David proposes the radical potential of this super-character, whose queer manifestation is distinctly lesbian, and how this might depose, if not continually haunt and confound, the dominant order.

11011The book Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic opens and ends on a personal discourse. In the beginning, David narrates how his life indubitably intertwined with Bernal’s film (and we may speculate, with Bernal’s life as well). It closes with an interview with the late Bernardo Bernardo, the actor who portrayed Manay Sharon, who’s commonly regarded as the “protagonist” of the movie. Bernardo would bring up once more the speculation that Manay Sharon “embodies” Bernal in the movie. David follows through several discourses in order to revert to this reading. From my own perspective, this return to an originary point is most apposite at the end, even if it threatens to upend all the foregoing arguments. Because the Manila by Night of Bernal and the Manila by Night of David are the same and different, even if both sprung from Bernal and David. And in the final reckoning, the Manila by Night of Bernal and David also surpasses what both of them have been.

[Author bio: Chuckberry J. Pascual is a Filipino writer and author of Pagpasok sa Eksena: Ang Sinehan sa Panitikan at Pag-aaral ng Piling Sinehan sa Recto [Scene Entrance: The Movie House in Literature and the Study of Selected Theaters along Recto (Avenue)] (University of the Philippines Press, 2016), among others. He was graduated at UP Diliman, teaches at the University of Santo Tomas, and is a resident fellow of the UST Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies and a research fellow of the UST Research Center for Culture, Arts, and Humanities.]

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Authoring Auteurs: The Comprehensive Pinas Film Bibliography

Fields of Vision

Original Digital Edition (2020)
Cover design by Paolo Miguel G. Tiausas
“Bomba” © 2019 by Mina Saha
[Click on pic to enlarge]

Contents
© 2020 by Amauteurish Publishing
All Rights Reserved

Bibliographical Introduction: Authoring Auteurs

Categorized List: A Dozen Classifications
Alphabetized List by Author
Alphabetized List by Title
Chronologized List: Latest to Earliest
Chronologized List: Earliest to Latest

Bibliographic Mini-Essay 1: The Aunor Effect
Bibliographic Mini-Essay 2: The Rise in Spin-offs

Bibliographic Mini-Reviews: Memoirs & Bios

Preface

Authoring Auteurs: The Comprehensive Pinas Film Bibliography had its origin in an annotated bibliography that I completed in a directed-research class under my dissertation supervisor, the late film historian Robert Sklar. I’d intended to include it as an appendix in my last premillennial volume, Wages of Cinema: Film in Philippine Perspective (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1998). Unfortunately, as I recounted in the book’s digital edition (Amauteurish Publishing, 2014),

this was one of the rare moments I was adjusting computer hardware usage – from DOS to late-adapting Windows, with the notorious Iomega ZIP drive as a means of storage, prior to my subscription to an online storage service – and it was too late when I realized that I had deleted the original copies in my regularly emptied home and office hard drives. It wasn’t the first – or even last – time that I had lost an important file, but it was one of a few instances of carelessness that I keep regretting to this day.

11011I retained the entries (minus annotations) that I was able to prepare for the print version’s final “Selected Bibliography” section and continued updating the Philippine entries, in the hope of reconstructing what I had lost. Life lesson: an annotated bibliography is something you might be able to do early in your scholarly career, unless annotational writing turns out to be one of your callings. In my case, I realized early on that I preferred to create long-form pieces, but that I also didn’t mind aggregating useful data and watched with frustration as the Internet Movie Database presumed to cover all film-production territories while handling outlying areas with the usual cavalierism of Western-centered undertakings.

11011Nevertheless I also realized almost as early that there were enough enthusiasts covering Pinas cinema – a fabulous handful of them non-Filipinos. On the other hand, even with my own growing list of bibliographic titles, I kept finding myself performing internet searches every time I was in the process of finalizing papers or articles, whether as author or as editor. So the calling, such as it was, also sounded itself over a decade ago, when I had to strive anew for tenureship, this time in an overseas university. With the tenure confirmed in the early 2010s, I only had to tick off a few other projects – setting up an archival blog, updating and posting my out-of-date materials, writing a millennial volume as well as a film monograph (plus an intervening canon project) – before I could finally announce the current Pinas film-bibliography project in its rudimental form in late 2019.

11011The present material expanded not only the listings but also the formats; the latter entailed rearranging the original category-grouped entries into listings that were alphabetical (by author, then by title) as well as chronological (though first in reverse). I managed to draft and post a bibliographic essay, which now serves as the introduction to this volume, as well as a few shorter articles, including a collection of mini-reviews. All these were in addition to descriptions, whenever useful or necessary, that I provided for some of the bibliographic entries; apparently I am entitled by bibliographic tradition to still claim this material as my own set of annotations, a fair-enough arrangement when I reconsidered the effort that went into them.

11011They remain free in the spirit of the short list of internet hacktivists all over the world, many of whom paid severe or mortal costs in liberating essential information for the rest of humanity. In the case of the Philippines, I would like to name two, Jojo Devera and Mike de Leon, for pioneering in selflessly sharing with the public their invaluable and lovingly curated collections of rare film titles; they are Authoring Auteurs’ dedicatees, if they do not mind the gesture. All I can share in comparison are book titles, almost all of which I did not even write, and which cost next-to-nothing to track down and process. If succeeding generations realize the benefits of sharing whatever resources they own, I will find nothing more satisfying than that.

11011Help in finalizing the bibliography came from the following: Teddy Co, Deogracias Antazo, Rofel G. Brion, Byron Bryant, Jerrick Josue David, Madie Gallaga, Michelle Gallaga, Cristina Gaston, Joni Gutierrez, Mike de Guzman, Nestor de Guzman, Patrick Flores, Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, Roumella Nina L. Monge, Eric Nadurata, Jim Paranal, Eduardo J. Piano, Jojo Terencio, Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., Boy Villasanta, and Ram Banal. Assistance for the study was jointly provided by the Inha University Faculty Research Fund as well as the blog sponsor, Pelikulove. [For larger image, please click on picture above.]

The National Library of the Philippines CIP Data

David, Joel.
11011Authoring auteurs : the comprehensive Pinas film bibliography / Joel David. — Original Digital Edition. — Quezon City : Amauteurish Publishing, [2020], © 2020.
11011N/A pages ; N/A cm

11011ISBN 978-621-96191-6-5

110111. Motion pictures — Philippines — Bibliography. I. Title.

016.79143095991101111011Z5784.M81101111011P020200161

11011“The Rise in Spin-offs” © 2021 by Amauteurish Publishing.

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Book Texts – Pinoy Film Reviews II: Late Celluloid Era (The 1990s)

Persistence of Vision

Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali?
Directed by Chito Roño
Written by Orlando R. Nadres

Someone sooner or later has to correlate the current paucity of fresh filmmaking talent with the decline in filmmaking quality, and I think we’ve had enough time – about an academic generation since the 1986 revolution – to arrive with confidence at such a conclusion. The political irony in this case should not be lost on any concerned observer: never was the movie industry more democratic in giving breaks to genuine talents than during the dictatorship, unlike in these, uh, democracy-spaced times. As further proof, the last of the major film talents to have emerged in these here parts is Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? director Chito Roño – whose debut film, Private Show, was completed way before February 1986 but was released afterward only because of a series of freak (and again ironic, Roño being the son of a Marcos-era minister) occurrences.

11011Only now does it seem like a near-miracle that most of our best and brightest actually emerged within a few months of one another – Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Jun Raquiza, Peque Gallaga, Butch Perez, Elwood Perez, Romy Suzara, and Danny Zialcita during the early ’70s, Behn Cervantes, Mike de Leon, Lupita Kashiwahara, Mario O’Hara, and Gil Portes during the mid-’70s, and Mel Chionglo, Abbo Q. de la Cruz, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Laurice Guillen, Maryo J. de los Reyes, Pepe Marcos, and Wilfredo Milan during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Of course one can point to at least two worth-watching newcomers since Roño’s debut – Augusto Salvador and Carlos Siguion-Reyna – but until anyone between them comes up with a follow-up comparable to their first films (Siguion-Reyna, in fact still hasn’t followed up so far at all!), I’d rather stick to the larger issue: that one or even two sparrows don’t a unit make.

11011Figuring out the possible reasons and disentangling them in order to effect a reversal would be worth a discourse in itself, so meantime I guess the next best thing to do would be to point out what we’ve been depriving ourselves of. This I think can be done by inverse implication – i.e., appreciating anything done by the above-named that deserves attention, so as to connote that we could have more such delights if we only had more such names around in the first place. Fortunately certain significant pronouncements can already be made about the last of the majors, this early in his career. This is because Roño clearly belongs to the whiz-kid category – an elite circle in these parts, comprising those whose expressive skills alone could ensure a holistic, if essentially flawed, creation; other names we can count herein are Peque Gallaga, Mike de Leon, and, closer to the fringes, Laurice Guillen.

11011Roño bears comparison with Gallaga, the most accomplished (in career terms) of the lot, since both of them, to begin with, exhibit a flair for intense, operatic camera-gestures. Not surprisingly, it is Gallaga who, among all Filipino filmmakers, has the most impressive track record in epic filmmmaking, stylistically surpassing those of earlier masters like the late Gerardo de Leon and Celso Ad. Castillo. And then again, when we think of problematic film statements, we also refer to the works of the stylists and the whiz-kids, especially Gallaga. For nowhere than in the creative process is such a situation as “too good to be true” possible: the McLuhanesque aphorism about the medium being the message can get carried to the logical extreme of there being no more message (of import, that is) within an over-elaborated medium. Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? upholds Roño’s distinction – that among his peers, only he has been able to apply a visual quotient comparable to Gallaga’s, with a psychological bent of an order never seen since the heyday of Castillo. The effect, when you think about it, is pretty awesome. All our major directors, including the whiz kids, require appropriate resources in order to achieve epic feats; in contrast, Roño simulates the properties of the epic by enlarging what are actually modest givens.

11011These skills were on display as early as the first phase of his career, when he did a series of projects for a number of independent producers. The next phase began when he finally decided, after a series of burns and false starts with other independents, to work with a mainstream outfit, Viva Films. Kasalanan Ba’ng Sambahin Ka? saw him barely maintaining his equanimity, what with a commercialist cop-out in the end. Bakit Kay Tagal, however, more fully exhibits the director’s creative potentials, perched as it is (like the earlier film) between dismissible material and an invaluable, or at least instructive, skills display, with no let-up in the balancing act and a successful steerage of material toward the requisite build-up and denouement.

11011It would even be possible to appreciate Bakit Kay Tagal as komiks-sourced material, though not in the old sense, wherein the adapter was expected to temper the excesses of the origins. Hence, while Lino Brocka, for example, has been and should be esteemed for his capability to invest visual and episodic (and therefore non-rational and fragmented) material with literary values, Roño in Bakit Kay Tagal may similarly be complimented, albeit for taking the entirely opposite tack – the more dangerous, if usual, one of observing rather than defying the material’s convolutions and disproportions. Normally this approach falls flat but works commercially anyway, since it allows the multitude of komiks readers to recognize in the film the story that they’ve been following in print. Successful local stylistic exercises – Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata, Mike de Leon’s Kakabakaba Ka Ba?, and some lesser works by Castillo – prove that local artists and subject matter could lend themselves to medium-based indulgence, but the lesson provided by Bakit Kay Tagal is that what lies behind these triumphs is actually the komiks spirit.

11011Bakit Kay Tagal may therefore be regarded as a long-overdue definitive adaptation of komiks material, in terms of the nature, rather than the literary potential, of the original form. A certain thematic strain runs through the film – the satisfying, if overworked, thesis of how class conflicts induce moral transformations in those who survive them; although the proletarian characters win over the rich ones, the movie invokes conservative caution by qualifying that the change in status also alters one’s social constitution – in short, the higher one climbs the class ladder, the more individualistic one becomes (or has to be). There is nothing unique about the sequence of events in this particular story, apart from what can be expected in an adequately structured tale; the actors themselves don’t add much to their roles, since their characters are developed according to contrasting though predictable extremities, either from rich and proud to humble and dead, or from poor and downtrodden to heritable and haughty, with a measure of redemptive repentance in the end. Such grandiosity of vision has been the standard recourse of komiks writers, who compensate it seems for the unwieldiness of their medium by cloaking their stories with all-encompassing draperies, which in turn are rendered flimsy precisely by their functional universality.

11011As mentioned earlier, in the hands of a less capable (read: typical) director, the inherent limitations of this type of material would have been readily discernible: mere filmmaking competence would focus the viewer’s attention on the more perceivable mechanism of the work instead of its bigger but essentially abstract statements. Bakit Kay Tagal manages to direct viewership concerns where it matters – to the larger though fundamentally trite abstractions, instead of the lapses and illogicalities. I cannot overemphasize the fact that the solution in this instance is really a stylistic one, since this should constitute a warning in itself. The fact that a Filipino filmmaker can finally surmount the deficiencies of her material through sheer skill may be good news in our context, but one only has to look across the Pacific, to Hollywood, to see how an early blessing could easily and naturally metamorphose into a latter-day curse.

11011In fact, if there’s anything Roño’s achievement in Bakit Kay Tagal imparts, it’s the realization that his approach is far more difficult than the traditional one; in practical terms it would be physically and financially easier to fashion and execute a well or even over-developed script than to figure out how to continually abstractify flawed material using limited technical resources. The key to Bakit Kay Tagal’s effectiveness lies not in how the project required terrific casting and brilliant technical back-up (with a concomitant budgetary complement), but in how the filmmaker provided the illusion of a seamless whole, using technique (matched transitions, expertly timed dissolves, purposeful camera movements) to promote an unusual sensibility.

11011In the end I guess it would be fair to state that it’s the substance of the style and not the style itself that salvages Bakit Kay Tagal from the unenviable fate of faithful komiks adaptations. The best elements of our most highly praised naturalist product, Oro, Plata, Mata, can also be found herein: an authentic sense of aristocracy, a predisposition toward perverse progressions, a subtle awareness of classic film traditions. Yet Oro, Plata, Mata, which is of more ambitious stuff than Bakit Kay Tagal, could not sustain its strong initial impact. Bakit Kay Tagal I feel will be able to get by primarily because of lesser expectations, but it ought to make us all hope for the day when a Roño project would have the ideal combination of major budget and sober material, to enable him to improve on what may already be good enough instead of merely making do with what can never be momentous to begin with.

[Submitted in 1991 to National Midweek; unpublished]

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Indigenous Ingenuity

Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Isang Ina?
Directed by Gil M. Portes
Written by Ricardo Lee

I knew that I’d be involuntarily associated with the project, so I took the opportunity to formalize my participation. It all started when the members of the film-student organization I was advising, unabashedly Nora Aunor fans, could only talk about (and work on) the comeback project of the actress. Never had the heretofore insurmountable challenge of breaking into the local movie industry seemed so easy – due largely to the endorsement of my coadviser, Ricardo Lee, who was also the scriptwriter of the project. My only previous direct experience in a mainstream production was in a Vilma Santos-starrer, where I was, among other things, an atmosphere person. They had inserted some lines for a human-rights lawyer character in the Nora Aunor movie to demonstrate the desperation of the character in seeking help to recover her baby. The lawyer was supposed to be unable to do anything for her, so my role was to have been limited to a one-scene exchange; imagine, I told myself, only two full-length film exposures in my life thus far, and these with Vilma Santos and Nora Aunor….

11011The day after I did the role, the production folded up, reportedly because the original financier backed out. And with its director Gil M. Portes scheduled to leave for New York soon after, everyone was pessimistic about the film ever getting finished. I relate all this because I never really understood, until this project, how precarious serious filmmaking can be, especially in these times. With a record-setting eleven trophies from the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), plus a Gold Prize, Special Critics Prize, and Individual Achievement awards (Lee and Aunor) from the first batch of the Young Critics Circle winners, it is dangerously easy to assume that the movie, now known as Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Ina?, had been fated to be a winner from the start.

11011It is also just as dangerously difficult to dislike Andrea. The worst thing I can say, in all objectivity, about the film is that it may be existing way past its time. This is, in fact, its primary distinction: not since the boldest years of the Marcos era has there been an overtly anticommercial local production – independently (and indigently) sourced and featuring nonbankable perfomers in nonformulaic material. Rarer still is the circumstance of such an effort reaping such rewards, and I mainly mean the post-Metro filmfest box-office restitution rather than the various prestigious distinctions that invariably followed. The MMFF contribution to Andrea’s fortune may be more than incidental in this regard. For all its past oversights – and these were many and cruel, directed even at some of Andrea’s makers – the MMFF has also honored, exclusively even, some of the better outputs of the local film industry: Celso Ad. Castillo’s direction of Burlesk Queen and Vilma Santos’s performance therein (both the director’s and actress’s best ever), Nora Aunor’s performance in Himala (her best and that of Philippine cinema as well), and Ricardo Lee’s screenplay of Moral (still another all-time best entry).

11011The value of the MMFF results, which no other award-giving institution possesses, lies in their capability to improve the financial performance of any film on which they bestow recognition. This adds a unique combination of sum and substance to the event’s moral obligation to render credible and well-considered judgments at all times. Conversely, no amount of postfestival revaluation had been able to recuperate whatever results were consequentially incurred by its negligence of such entries as Lino Brocka’s Bona (starring Nora Aunor), Bukas … May Pangarap (with the same director-writer team as Andrea’s), and Chito Roño’s Itanong Mo sa Buwan. As for Andrea, the measure by which the film has succeeded may at least partly be at the MMFF’s expense: not only had some of its personnel previously suffered the lapses in judgment of the jurors of the festival, the director and writer themselves have on record an entry, Birds of Prey, that was disallowed participation some years back on the basis of the ridiculous and inconsistent technicality of its having been financed by foreign sources. Meanwhile, what we have on hand is a product that happens to serve as the juncture of three auteurs – director, writer, and lead performer – at felicitous turning points in their respective careers.

11011Portes is the Andrea talent whose reputation advances with the film, from project originator to metteur en scène. Actually, though Andrea may be his best, it is not his coming-out film: that distinction belongs to his previous Nora Aunor-starrer, ’Merika, the project that immediately preceded Bukas … May Pangarap. (Andrea, Bukas, and Birds of Prey also feature Gina Alajar, who starred in the latter two as well as in another underrated Portes-Lee collaboration, Gabi Kung Sumikat ang Araw [1981]). The misfortune of Gil Portes is that his flair for uncovering independent production sources has attracted more attention than his growth as a filmmaker. No other Filipino, not even Celso Ad. Castillo, has been able to sustain a directorial career for years on the basis of a few modest hits, and more recently, despite a string of financial flops. Not surprisingly, the major production houses, having drifted toward increased commercialization since the February 1986 Revolution, have closed their doors to the likes of Portes. Other serious filmmakers, notably Brocka (and Lee, to a certain extent), have managed to maintain mainstream status only by accepting the givens and working within them.

11011The filmmakers marginalized by this shift in the system of local production have practically inhibited themselves – except for Portes. At one point, both he and Brocka sought foreign funding for their respective pet projects, and both similarly found themselves up against the Aquino administration’s deviously self-effacing censorship tactics. Birds of Prey and Orapronobis may yet find their way onto local screens, but meanwhile both Portes and Brocka again made a show of how film artistry could be made to fit opposing modes of production: where Brocka’s Gumapang Ka sa Lusak is 1990’s outstanding mainstream film, Andrea is the same year’s outstanding independent entry.

11011Significantly, both films were scripted by Lee, and may therefore provide, if only in a literal sense, a common basis for evaluation. Gumapang Ka marks a high point in the appropriation by serious artists of commercial elements in putting across what may be considered a non-commercial theme – that of the depravity of traditional politics. In forced contrast, Andrea proves that a non-commercial approach to commercial (at least in the latent sense) material is feasible. In fact, the more optimistic could argue that at no other point in our recent history would non- or maybe even anti-commercial products prosper that at present, given the mainstream saturation effected by the predominance of monolithic studios since Februrary 1986.

11011In the case of Lee, the twofold scriptwriting triumph of 1990 (not counting a number of more conventional works, including Brocka’s Hahamakin Lahat [1990]) can be creatively attributed to his return to more literary pursuits, especially journalism and fiction. The scene where Andrea has to hold back her emotions during her husband’s wake, as well as the heroine’s death-by-assassination in both films, all recall similar portions in the scripwriter’s latest, essentially unclassifiable work, the metafictional “Kabilang sa mga Nawawala.” Necessarily, the overall impact of “Kabilang,” where the author had total personal control, is greater, though it still has to be played out more thoroughly since its medium’s potential for popular response is disadvantaged compared to film.

11011But what Andrea (more than Gumapang Ka) supplies is in effect a preparation for the unqualified treat of works like “Kabilang.” The film constitutes a throwback to a point – perhaps our filmic past, as well as a beyond-Hollywood expansion of appreciation – where cinema defines itself more in terms of dramatic and thematic richness than in the accumulation of plastic-perfect points. Most buffs and historians (the distinction tends to blur in the case of film) would identify this ideal as neorealist, although Andrea, truer to its time and place, evinces a sophistication, not to mention a performance, far removed from the extremes allowed by the 1940s Italian movement.

11011What will probably outrage partisan viewers of opposing persuasions in another political clime is the same thing that has managed to impress those in today’s: Andrea, though it deals with the plight of a specific stripe of political animal, actually winds up repudiating not the political line, but the notion of politics itself, in order to facilitate a dramatic (as opposed to a purely intellectual) catharsis. Again this resembles the resolution in “Kabilang,” where the child, this time as central character, is orphaned as much by social intransigence as by his mother’s insistence on countering this force. Andrea, centering as it does on the title-character mother, provides the temperance factor in the person of the lead’s best friend. The ploy is slyly though transparently manifested in the standing agreement between the friends to override their ideological differences for the sake of friendship. Andrea’s subsequent martyrdom is all the more ennobled by her submission to solomonic wisdom: at considerable personal anguish, she decides to leave her son to her friend, for the brighter future the latter offers (in contrast to the bleakness of her own), and because the child has revived the friend’s married life.

11011The movie’s tearjerker outcome is thus provided a crucial dimension of ambiguity: Andrea may have suffered in the hands of a mean-spirited society, but her son will not. Her death provides not only a well-deserved spiritual release for herself, but the necessary means for her son (and his adoptive parents) to start anew. Andrea may therefore be taken as a plea to reconsider a return to unorthodox modes and material in filmmaking. Using this sort of approach has seemed reckless in the past, but it in fact appears now to have been so simply because serious filmmakers seemed intent on alienating the mass audience at all costs. Andrea stands as evidence that given the proper kind of creative and industrial strategizing, local viewers are now ready to be won over to attempts at uncompromised artistry.

11011On a symbolic plane this argument can be extended to Andrea actress Nora Aunor. I do not refer alone to the fact that, if there ever were an auteuristic performer, Aunor is our one and only. Andrea may yet represent the renascence of the actress, after a series of popular rejections (starting at EDSA) traceable to her ill-advised participation in the Marcos-Tolentino presidential campaign. Aunor has died spectacularly before on film – in Himala, a previous association with Lee. The movie, in retrospect, eerily presages her fall from grace owing to the mortal combination of her awareness of her populist origins and her rebellion against any expectation attendant to this.

11011Andrea is Nora Aunor’s long-overdue phoenix-like reemergence and successfully contravenes her ugly-duckling ex-superstar has-been status. No way can she hope for a return to the glory days of her teen-idol years; that much was already evident as early as Himala, where she boxed herself, by the sheer magnitude of her histrionic genius, into a category all her own. Andrea proves that she did not waste the intervening years, traumatic though they may have been for her; if anything, it was the years that wasted her – but only, and strictly, on a physical level. In fact the performer in Andrea can be regarded in many ways as superior to the still-too-pretty and sexually tentative creature embodying Himala’s Elsa. Her via dolorosa segment in the earlier film was a triumph of technique, amorphous at best, whereas in Andrea, which consists of one long journey to a final heartbreak, the pain can be visualized as a line traveling straight from her heart to the viewer’s.

11011Just how precisely accomplished is Nora Aunor as an actress?[1] In the past I would have answered this by sizing up her Himala performance against that of any perceived competitor’s, but this has proved to be too obvious with time. Meanwhile I had been given in Andrea what amounted to a monolog in Filipino, which I had to memorize in a few minutes. Since my memory and my command of the language are both my gravest performative disadvantages, I inquired about the setup required and learned that that scene would consist of one long take, with close-ups for the final one-sentence exchanges. A bottle of beer, one camera rehearsal, and scores of memory aids later, I still could not get beyond the first sentence without directorial prompting. But during the take I connected for the first time with those eyes, and the lines all came to me naturally and clearly, requiring no retakes whatsoever. I marveled at this phenomenon; I was entirely aware of, apprehensive about, and alert to the warning of how strong co-actors tend to upstage weak ones. I was also conscious of the possibility that the opposite could hypothetically exist. But I never expected to so casually come across a performer whose very strength could bolster, rather than demolish, everyone else’s. That’s a tale which, like Andrea, I would not mind turning into a legend.

[Submitted in 1991 to National Midweek; unpublished]

Note

[1] Surprisingly, my attempt to answer this question led to verbal denunciations in the national university, including from my own colleagues (who should have known better, but then the place has never moved much past its status as a bastion of self-proclaimed progressive orthodoxy). The incongruity between advocating for Marxist praxis yet feeling disgusted about practitioners who refuse to cling to the immaculacy of criticism by immersing in the activities of their objects of criticism – whether artists or audiences – accounts in large measure for the persistently sorry state of critical practice in the country.

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Head Held High

Gumapang Ka sa Lusak
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Ricardo Lee

When Lino Brocka walked out on the 1986 Constitutional Commission it seemed like an act of futility, a typical if outsized artist’s tantrum. Predictably, the Concom carried on, drafting a document that met with popular approval, thereby paving the way for the return of authentically elected officials to power. What we mostly failed to realize was that Brocka intended to continue conducting his side of the political debate in the venue where his expertise lay – the mass medium of film – and more menacingly, that his decision to do so would be accompanied by a quantum leap in his creative faculties. Both developments have been long overdue. Political discourse in local cinema since the 1986 revolution tended to falter by the tradition of anti-Marcos dissent, which tended to be either too frontal for comfort (especially the artist’s) or too subtle to be appreciated in relation to the work’s over-all merits. Brocka himself took a leading role in this kind of perilous undertaking, but the business of surviving in an extensively controlled local industrial system as well as developing an international audience must have distracted him from paying full attention to the nature and potentials of his medium.

11011Of course he was not alone; he merely led in his specific field, and I maintain that the fact that many were able to follow proves that the Marcos government, for all its hard-nose ways, had a soft spot for film. Philippine cinema thereby assumed a schizoid character, awfully harmless in its commercialist aspects and awesomely threatening in its serious phases. The gravest possible consequence then was the displeasure of government authorities. But when these cultural boneheads were ousted by people power (only to be replaced by a similar set), the long-term effects of this split-level one-on-the-other approach became clear: the film artists could not relate with their audience, who in turn quickly learned to reject all old-time attempts at serious film presentations.

11011Hence the much-lamented dry spell in serious (normally associated with politicized) filmmaking. Even the real film artists took on a good measure of critical scolding for openly indulging in generic movie-making, at best turning out items that could be considered good only if one accepts the premises of mainstream local cinema. In Brocka’s case, this meant a string of extremely successful melodramas that could never quite break away from the imperatives of mass entertainment, save perhaps for the first, Maging Akin Ka Lamang. And even then….

11011Well since then Brocka came up with the still-to-be-released Orapronobis, and has followed up with his latest hit, Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, and in the purest filmic terms both titles are indistinguishable from his post-revolution crowd-pleasers. In both cases he also drew from his Marcos-era specialization in film noir, but basically he has hewn close to the plot twists and character entanglements that commercially rehabilitated him. In so doing, he advanced a proposition audacious even for himself: Philippine politics, per Brocka’s latest, is more than just a matter of intrigues and chases and shoot-outs; it is actually one big noisy and unending melodrama. Everyone gets to participate; unlike in Brocka’s gangster films, the political figures are this time identifiable and given active roles to play. The gods have now been invested with feet of clay, very wet ones at that.

11011It is an indication of the gap between our officials and the masses they claim to represent when no one among the former thus far has raised a peep about the wholesale (and well-deserved) defamation being visited upon them by our movie-makers. All of a sudden, politicians have become commercially viable – as villains. The two Brocka films are merely among the better-intentioned ones so far, and something must also urgently be said about the way the mass audience laps it all up. For too long, and especially since 1986, the Filipino movie-goer has been the object of scorn among the intelligentsia, who find no difficulty tracing the sorry state of local cinema to its market. No matter that the producers happen to agree; even the highest Marcos cultural official, Madame Iron Butterfly, prescribed the production of wholesome love stories among the true, the good, and the beautiful (though pretty would do), following the collapse of the martial-law era’s “developmentalist” requisites. In short, everyone agreed (many still do) that the movie-going masses are too bull-headed to take even themselves seriously. No bitter pill will they swallow, unless candy-coated and brightly colored; in which case why risk the danger of contaminating their brazen delights with the acridity of nourishment? Actually the evidence of past artistic works occasionally making money belies this notion, just as the people can take disapprobation if they have to: after all, who elected those officials in the first place?

11011Brocka’s Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, which has completed the filmmaking process from inspiration to exhibition, evinces a careful working out of viewership psychology, particularly when placed in the context of its director’s body of work. Inside information alleges that the project was originally intended as a sequel to Jaguar, which was written by Gumapang Ka’s Ricardo Lee and Orapronobis’s Jose F. Lacaba. Jaguar was a Brocka landmark in the strict sense that it was scripted by his most productive collaborators and first enabled the country to be represented in the Cannes Film Festival competition; in another equally significant area, the box-office, it flopped. The Jaguar re-viewer though will readily realize that Gumapang Ka is more than just a decade removed from its predecessor. As already mentioned, it’s not as straight-faced as one would be led to expect, given the scary social premises of Jaguar. Gumapang Ka is as grave as Brocka has been known to be, make no mistake; yet its lead character, who this time is female, and who dies along with the (re-named) Jaguar character, gives out what may arguably be the most blissful smile ever seen in local cinema, right before she expires.

11011A happy ending? In a serious film? By Lino Brocka?! And there’s more: you can even play the game of name-that-historical personage. I went as far as recognizing Dovey Beams and Rolando Galman and Carlito Dimailig (Imelda Marcos’s bolo-wielding assailant, here transmuted into an elderly woman), plus the female lead’s assumption of the former First Lady’s amnesiac attitude toward her childhood destitution, and still had enough room in my head to allow for a catch in my throat when her moralist admonition was replayed over the last shot of the “next” Jaguar – her naïve and sentimental and, yes, comic-Platonic lover. The most obvious explanation is that with Orapronobis, Brocka remembered to grow in his medium; with Gumapang Ka, he remembered to relax. Not since Jaguar has there been a dramatically involving villain in a Brocka film, and in Gumapang Ka there are even three of them: the Marcos couple and Fabian Ver equivalents. And where in the past his stories could not allow for loose ends, or otherwise resulted in an embarrassment of loose ends, here the frills – the in-jokes, the performance numbers, the open ending – are part of an expertly constructed design.

11011The means by which such frivolity in the midst of social grimness could be facilitated harkens back to Brocka’s disillusionment with politics. He returned to showbiz, of course, and in Gumapang Ka he set one against the other. The politicians dominate the opening gambit (like they always do in real life), with the mayor plucking his mistress from a checkered career in sex films and the couple recruiting their main henchman from a stable of stuntmen. But by living out her fantasy of justice, the mistress attains a moral triumph that makes her payment with her life, not to mention that of many others, seemingly worth the price. In this manner does Gumapang Ka attain its unique brand of salvation. As opposed to Jaguar it doesn’t run away from fantasy, but instead utilizes non-credible elements to build an expansive yet sturdy framework that allows for a whole lot of valid connections with historical reality. The fact that this approach happens to sit well with local audiences indicates some drastic re-thinking for media practitioners in the immediate future.

11011As if that weren’t bonus enough, Gumapang Ka also proffers generally high-caliber performances. Dina Bonnevie stakes a privileged position in an already impressive roster of local female lead performances, with hers ranking the highest in sensuality; never had she been so effective before. Her antagonists provide the flint by which she lights her fire: in a reversal of the real-life conjugal dictatorship, Eddie Garcia exhibits the charm and Charo Santos-Concio the intelligence. Come to think of it, the Gumapang Ka production outfit was once suspected of executing Imelda Marcos’s conceits for Philippine cinema, using funds whose release were made possible by her all-encompassing influence. How ironic that in violating her vision and almost her person, the producers have managed to come up with their best picture so far.

[First published June 20, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Family Affairs

Pido Dida (Sabay Tayo)
Directed by Tony Cruz
Written by Tony Cruz and Roger Fuentebella

The contrast between opposing opinions on Kris Aquino’s first film, Pido Dida (Sabay Tayo), indicates the extent of the polarization between official and independent pronouncements on local culture. Those who want or need to maintain a favored status take the cue from Aquino’s doting mother – who, the more ardent appreciators point out, was just continuing what her late husband, who happens to be our own modern-day Messiah, had started – in proclaiming the presidential daughter’s performance, and the movie by association, adequate at the very least. Those who can afford to do otherwise, for whatever motive possible, resort to any pronouncement along the rest of the spectrum, from adequate downward. In the end Pido Dida’s adequacy will remain unresolved, largely because of the political coloration that has attended its critical reception, compounded by the favorable box-office response. On the surface the film appears to be easily dismissible per se, but this may be the key to the alienation of the elite, especially the intelligentsia, from the masses: if we condemn an item as unacceptable out of our concern for its consumers, what does it make of us (and the item in question) when the consumers themselves refuse to listen?

11011The fascinating thing about this entire enterprise is that the crucial commercial element in Pido Dida, comedian Rene Requestas, manages to acquit himself, well, adequately, notwithstanding the heaviest creative burden he has been made to bear in his career thus far. In his past films, Requiestas had proved himself inimitable in his capability to draw humor from event the most mediocre lines and situations given him. In fact, his success en solo has given cause for worry to his discoverer, Joey de Leon, as well as relief to the latter’s toilet-humor detractors. Requiestas proves for our place and time what Pauline Kael discovered about Barbra Streisand: not that ugly is (or will ever be) in, but that talent is beauty. No other Filipino of movie-star status has had such a reliable record of stage performances behind him, save perhaps for Roderick Paulate; but where the latter was eventually delimited by his screaming-meemie persona, Requiestas, by his everyday-person projection, would be ideal for the versatility once appropriated by Dolphy – from Requiestas’s current (and deplorable) ugly-clown gimmick to perhaps a foray into Paulate territory or an assumption of a dramatic, possibly even sexy, role, with his falsies all in place of course. If I may be allowed to invest my two-cents’ worth, Requiestas seems to me to consist of far richer potential than anyone before him.

11011But talent, as Dolphy himself once discovered, can only go so far, especially in a medium as inevitably collaborative as film. We should only hope that in Requiestas’s case he (or his managers) opt for expanding his repertoire to include other approaches to film performance, rather than building on a so-far bankable but increasingly depletive type of role. He could wind up as an industry fixture like Dolphy, recycling past glories in customary productions every so often, though not often enough … but why be merely comfortable when you can be terrific? Pido Dida in itself could constitute a serious warning notice for the Requiestas credit, with the creative team ostensibly out to run down his gifts with the most unimaginative and sluggish lines and situations available – ugly-face jokes, cutesifications, indiscriminate inside references to politics and show business, and worst of all, a patronizing beauty-and-beast romantic angle with Ms. Guess-Who.

11011On the other hand the movie could also signal the emergence of a reliable competitor to the conservative young-star iconography of Sharon Cuneta. With Aquino, we have the same right-wing political wealth and back-up source, plus the additional advantages of prettiness and earnestness. The terrible reality of this kind of image-building exercise is that it doesn’t much matter to what end these girls have opted to devoted what talent they happen to possess; they could probably even get away with taking its development for granted, as Cuneta has so far managed to do.[1] The ideal entertainment ethic would be for us to relegate these strays from the political corral to their proper positioning according to their potential for contributing to Philippine culture – i.e., straight to the slaughterhouse of collective memory. Unfortunately this presumes that our non-political systems could afford to ignore the influence of establishment politics.

11011So in the meantime that our producers and audiences try to upgrade, consciously or otherwise, their capacity for intelligence and independence, we remain at the mercy of the dictates of those who couldn’t really care less about the quality of our creature comforts. In Pido Dida we see this principle played out in the manner by which a leading lady in a comedy gets handled like a leading lady, instead of a comedienne. Nothing funny that the Aquino character does is of her own volition, unless it be to emphasize her already obvious pictorial superiority to her leading man. In the end this kind of approach – a political decision, actually – becomes (a no-no in comedy) predictable: we get to know when the laughs are coming, indicated as they are by Requiestas’s presence, and when we’re only supposed to smile, which is when Aquino’s around. And when funnybone responses are determined by factors beyond the work’s inner mechanism, then the responses aren’t really that much fun in the end.

11011It should be of national interest to see the Kris Aquino persona evolve alongside her mother’s political career. If the Sharon Cuneta model is any indication, the daughter could have a better chance of outshining her politician parent, though the latter need not fade away entirely, so long as she learns in turn how to pick up a trick or two from her fair-haired child. We couldn’t do away yet with politically sponsored as aspirants to showbiz stardom, but perhaps a worse scenario – two aspirants instead of only one – might be the next best thing after all: either their rivalry repositions one or the other to a more enlightened political stance, or it rages to the extent of eventually consuming them both, symbols of impositions by an uncaring elite on our popular preferences.

[First published October 24, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] This remark must have sounded irresistible at the time. Since then Sharon Cuneta has demonstrated how precipitate (and therefore unfair) it was. She had been in the process of completing her four projects with Lino Brocka and was about to hire herself out to producers other than Viva Films, solidifying her independent-woman stature in a number of Star Cinema productions before attempting a series of noteworthy digital-indie projects. Jerrick Josue David, film scholar and close Cuneta observer, coined the term “dulsita,” a portmanteau of “dulce” (sweet) and “maldita” (catty) to describe the adjustment she made in her persona, as a way of preparing the public for the less-wholesome characters in the roles she took on. See his “Dulsita, ang Kabuuan ng Kontradiksyon ng Imahen ni Sharon Cuneta sa Pelikulang Pilipino [The Totality of the Contradicting Images of Sharon Cuneta in Philippine Cinema],” Kritika Kultura 25 (August 2015): 314-43.

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Men and Myths

Bala at Rosaryo
Directed by Pepe Marcos
Written by Olivia M. Lamasan and Humilde “Meek” Roxas

The danger in becoming aware of the ancient conflict between so-called high art and mass culture is the acquisition of the convenient misimpression that both sides are essentially irreconcilable. Nowhere in modern times has this dialectic been more successfully demonstrated than in cinema, and the Philippines is no exception: on the one hand we have the world-renowned (a past Guinness edition, to be specific) movie-going habit of our people, and on the other lies what must be another world record, given our context of film output, viewership, and Third-World status – an excess of movie award-giving bodies.[1] What this has resulted in is a positioning of a handful of “prestige” practitioners, favored for some reason or other (and not always fairly, it must be stressed) by one or more award groups, vis-à-vis, well, The Rest. The first always strive to put in some well-meaning elements in their output, while the rest remain content with the politics of survival.

11011A whole lot more improvement – and by this I refer to criteria of both art and commerce – would be realized if both sides dispense with this deplorable dichotomy. Our film-as-art practitioners were forced to explore local popular preference by the breakdown of official cultural pretensions wrought by the 1986 revolution; the larger challenge remains of convincing the much-maligned “commercialist” majority that quality can be both fun and profitable. A recent random release illustrates this point. Bala at Rosaryo is done by the same producer-director team that gave us the most significant lesson in the mergence of imaginativeness and mass appeal in action films after EDSA, the unfortunately underrated Tubusin Mo ng Dugo. Pepe Marcos et al.’s strong suit still surfaces occasionally in their recent effort, but the entire enterprise bogs down from the combined weight of defective structuring (the material was komiks-derived) and conventional moralizing – nothing that a good rewrite couldn’t have remedied.

11011Actually Bala at Rosaryo comes close to literate entertainment precisely when it veers too close to its danger points – i.e., when the plot detours into its gangster-and-virgin subconcern and the protagonists pretend that their respective positions of righteousness and mercy matter above everything else; the mass audience, who of course see through the charade, are titillated by its interplay with our folk-Catholic wisdom, which means they know that both parties are merely undergoing a courtship ritual whose sexual climax will offset the initially dominant religious stance. These “encounters” between the avenging hero and the pretty novice who falls for him are, well, blessed with a dramatic tension heightened by the use of satirical humor, particularly when the hero mistakes the hell-driving sister for his blood-feud enemy and, later, dreams of sexually conquering her under the usual tacky circumstances (he takes a bath under a waterfall and discovers her there), only to be awakened by the very object of his lust.

11011Meantime the peasant-class hero also has to contend with a too-circumstantial involvement with a landed family’s internal conflict. The fact that he’s used by the villain as scapegoat for a fratricidal crime doesn’t hold up too well; of course he’s paroled as reward for good behavior, and look Sis, it doesn’t ever occur to him to blackmail his tormentor once the facts clear up. Eddie Garcia bears his mark of Cain with gleeful malice; he’s finally been given full rein to go to town with his trademark hamminess and the result is one of those rare instances where the performance gets better as it gets worse. How can a pair of stuffy symbols surmount such infernal inspiration? Bala at Rosaryo attempts an answer by showing us the sound and fury of Good Overpowering Evil in the End. It’s strictly a technical answer, though, and I’m sure most viewers would prefer a full-scale resurrection of the Eddie Garcia character to a sequel of the now-sanctified union of the purged-to-pureness couple. Or maybe if we restore to them their original-sin sense of guilt, and this time exploit their fall from grace for all the laughs that modern existence could wring from it, I’m sure Garcia would make a terrific serpent.

[First published June 6, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] Several years later, a study of the “modern” award (with the Nobel as precursor) argued persuasively that the future portends proliferation, not streamlining: “Prizes, an instrument of cultural hierarchy, would themselves come increasingly to describe a hierarchical array, a finely indexed system of greater and lesser symbolic rewards, the negotiation of which constitutes a kind of second-order game or subsidiary cultural marketplace” (54). See James F. English, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

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I.O.U.

Kahit Singko Hindi Ko Babayaran ang Buhay Mo
Directed by Jesus Jose
Written by Joji Vitug

Lito Lapid during his heyday was somehow worth watching if only for the promise of a well-made action epic. The subject himself had something to do with the semi-serious attention: among successful local action stars, he alone was (and still is) readily identifiable as Pinoy in the traditional brown-skinned, not-too-tall, well-stocked model. The closest a Lapid movie ever came to fulfillment was Celso Ad. Castillo’s Pedro Tunasan, although a handful of smaller works, notably Mario O’Hara’s Kastilyong Buhangin, were more systematic in maximizing his competence as actor. Given a two-decade-long career that was mostly characterized by his absence from the moviemaking scene, he must have decided to go the way of Fernando Poe Jr. by taking matters into his own hands and directing a project starring himself.

11011The risk seems to have paid off so far in the literal monetary sense in Kahit Singko Hindi Ko Babayaran ang Buhay Mo, much better at least than in Pedro Tunasan, wherein Lapid was producer. The influences of Castillo and Poe (who was directed by and has also considerably drawn from the former) are very much in evidence, particularly in the build-ups toward scenes of violence and the staging of agitated masses of people moving across picturesque panoramas. Where Castillo retains an upper hand over his actor-successors is in his appropriation of Gerardo de Leon’s diagonal deep-focus compositions, which in turn were adapted from international trend-setters long before most of us were born. Kahit Singko is the usual morality play that lends credence to the generally unsatisfactory thesis that our action films are ascribable to the komedya tradition. The characters are rounded out as far as one-dimensional premises would allow them to, and interact according to rules of conflict that pit goodness against evil; one or the other triumphs in the end (this time it’s goodness), but in Kahit Singko I somehow came to realize why such a profoundly dissatisfying simplification of dramatic issues is more deeply rooted in this genre than in any other.

11011Provide the characters with the requisite reasonable motivations, and you negate the necessity of looking for other solutions to resolve their conflicts. Meaning to say, once the situation becomes dramatically valid, then all you’d ever really need is a dramatic resolution – and if you append the climactic apocalypse that action aficionados always expect, your movie would have ended way before the last frame. If on the other hand you deprive the audience of real dramatization, you could hook them until the finish with increasing doses of violence and give them a semblance of having closed the issues through the sheer relief of eliminating the cause of any further shootouts. There’s one easy way of ensuring that the formula always seem new, and this is what has contributed to the perpetuity of the genre: the constant updating of issues. In Kahit Singko, two related thrusts enable the film to make a bid for historical, or at least journalistic, significance: the use of an elected government official as villain, and the portrayal of a law officer as torn between loyalty to political authority (his professional superiors) and principle (his family). A provocative contrast is set up between the hero and his best friend, also a policeman, who succumbs to an overwhelming barrage of invitations to petty corruption.

11011The movie doesn’t pursue its concerns to their logical extremes, which is why I couldn’t be enthusiastic enough given its critical slant. The weak-willed police partner gets killed off almost as soon as he agrees to play dirty, his fate foreshadowed by what happened to an even more notorious colleague within the same precinct. Our hero’s moral dilemma actually arrives at a pinnacle at this point, but he’s pushed back to the comfortable side of righteousness by the bad guy’s psychotic actuation in having the rest of the policeman’s family massacred during a wake already caused by his goons. The Lapid character does a Dirty Harry – surrendering his badge prior to going on a rampage – without a realization of the underlying appeal of the Clint Eastwood creation. Dirty Harry succeeds precisely because he’s true to his name: the liberal-humanist “system” of justice has taught him, a subversive from within, to resort to brutal and illegal methods in dealing with crime. Kahit Singko’s avenger turns out to be too much of an angel to be distinguishable from the rest of the canon, beyond the fact that he looks like Lito Lapid.

11011Along the way we get treated to the simpler pleasures of listening to a small-person’s debate on human rights and to all the characters addressing the central object of hatred as “Congressman.” In the moviehouse where I saw the film, a trailer from a rival production outfit showed another villain whom everyone called “Mayor” and whose wife looked and behaved like Imelda Marcos. The forthcoming title was by Lino Brocka, and I could swear that the unusually quiet attention being paid to it by the lower-class audience who filled the theater meant that they were busy making serious connections, as we all ought to be doing, between one movie experience and another yet to come.

[First published June 6, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Movable Fists

Walang Awa Kung Pumatay
Directed by Junn P. Cabrera
Written by Jun Lawas and Enrique Mariano

Iisa-Isahin Ko Kayo
Directed by Francis “Jun” Posadas
Written by Erwin T. Lanad

Apoy sa Lupang Hinirang
Directed by Mauro Gia Samonte
Written by Joe Carreon and Mauro Gia Samonte

Action films are back with a vengeance. Actually, Filipino action films, wherever they happen to be around, are almost always with vengeance – as a central theme, that is. It wasn’t of course always thus. What I remember of old action films was their emphasis on the instability of their violent characters’ psychological constitution, the premise dwelling on the officiated view that normal people commit no harm. Once in a while an action film would dare to be different by presenting a normal person misunderstood by the establishment (Robin Hood must have been the prototype in this instance), but this only served to reverse the preceding attitude rather that challenge it. I guess the contemporary Pinoy action film can be traced to the first item that acknowledged that a character can (and should) change in the course of her development, even if necessary to the extreme of the opposite of her original self. It may be difficult, perhaps impossible, to pinpoint a singular source, although by the end of the ’70s what was once daring and occasionally subversive (remember Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag?) became commonplace enough to become a staple ingredient in the action-film formula.

11011What we’re witnessing at the moment is the local consequence of what obtains once a once-suppressed tendency becomes, to use the appropriate poststructuralist terminology, dominant: said idea, in observance of the inevitable dialectical mode of progression, demands to be successfully challenged in its turn, just as it had once successfully challenged the very idea it had supplanted. In concrete terms, this can be observed in how the vengeance pattern, which had taken the place of the psychotic-gangster approach, is now undergoing permutations and qualifications with each action-film output, rather than its formerly straightforward application. With three recent action releases, just as many distinct reformulations of the vengeance principle are presented us. Walang Awa Kung Pumatay provides the easiest innovation – a technical one, which I doubt was deliberately worked out right from the start. The project’s premises seem to be safely dismissible: a fair-to-middling story, inadequate budget (resulting in below-average production values), and mannered delivery from its lead performer, Robin Padilla.

11011But instead of devoting attention to improving its most reliable and inexpensive element, the filmscript, Walang Awa opted to fall back on expert editorial execution, and in this manner managed to somehow salvage its one other weakness. In the year or so since his emergence, Padilla quickly learned the ham-acting local action stars use to enhance the excessive stylization required by the genre. In his case, however, Padilla built on his cutesy-boyish features, which in overextended takes (as what happened in his previous film, Barumbado), gives rise to an obnoxious projection – Sean Penn, as it were, trying to impress the critics. In Walang Awa, Padilla’s mannerisms, like the film’s defective production values, are cut right before they cross the line separating bravura from brazenness. What ensues is a lead performance charming in spite of itself (and the film as well), capable of carrying the uncritical appreciator over abundant moral, sexual, and geographic blunders, and making the requisite shootouts seem like impressive set-pieces by their contrast with the foregoing deficiencies and their deployment of Padilla’s lissome maneuvers.

11011Iisa-Isahin Ko Kayo has a heavier-set lead actor traversing the same Lethean course as Walang Awa. In fact, Iisa-Isahin lead Ronnie Ricketts suffers the burden of being too handsome in the conventional macho tradition, replete with broad features that don’t seem disposed toward nuances; his role in the film has been tailor-made for his capabilities – a whole lot of hell-raising, instead of strategizing, constitute the responses to what essentially are workable conflicts. It is in this instance, however, that the film manages to extenuate its efforts. Both Walang Awa and Iisa-Isahin need to have done better by their respective materials, although in a sense the same statement holds true for local action films in general: add a perceptible amount of beyond-competence complexity to an action-film framework and you’ll have something like a Peque Gallaga epic, which wouldn’t be classifiable anymore under the same genre, as defined by current standards.

11011The difference between Walang Awa and Iisa-Isahin is that the latter’s creators didn’t wait until their footage had been accumulated before figuring out their project’s salience. Iisa-Isahin appropriates, on a smaller scale, the strategy used by Wilfredo Milan in Anak ng Cabron some years back: I must say that the attempt works better this time around, since the film starts with a relatively realistic tone and builds up toward a totally anarchic climax, with some semiotic insights – notably one involving the Supreme Court building’s symbol of Blind Justice – neatly worked in. Yet the requisite of proper dramatic treatment eventually does Iisa-Isahin in: the good-guy police lead’s brutality is justified by his excessive enthusiasm for the implementation of law and order; the bad cop’s moll, whom he abducts, admires him for not responding to her sexiness, eventually deciding to save him at the expense of her life; and just to make sure that we all get on the side of righteousness, a couple of street kids are thrown in to save the hero and comfort his hostage and get killed by the goonies. We all know that some cops and tarts and street urchins can’t be as bad as they may seem to be in real life, but can they ever really be so wholesome as to individually profess wonderment at all the evil around them?

11011The last title, Apoy sa Lupang Hinirang, is the most interesting among the three, primarily because its makers did their homework where it mattered – at the conceptual level – and effectively exploited a once-sacrosanct ideological framework in the process. Students of Philippine political history will readily recognize the consistent and expert observation of the orthodox Marxist analysis of local class relations here, though only the most fanatically committed will fail to make out the glaring cynicism with which it was appropriated. Apoy also manages to get by with an entirely inexpedient set of actors by making them perform what their too-pretty features seem useful for: kissing and coupling, with the political interventions serving as obstacles to the literally sexual climax, which is quite demurely suggested in the end. I cannot help but approach the film with the ambivalence of cold comfort, since its source is anything but aesthetic. On the one had I’d survived those days when the merest acknowledgement of Apoy’s political framework could physically endanger its advocate, so my nostalgic response originates from witnessing formerly forbidden but still-familiar material being presented not just in a creative manner, but in a popular medium as well. On the other hand, its insufficiency in redeeming the work in question, which may not necessarily negate its adequacy in real-life practice, assures me, as it should assure those who worry about the current decline of culture as the national priority it should be, that there still exist problems that politics alone won’t solve.

[First published November 28, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Sedulously Cebuano

Eh … Kasi … Bisaya!
Directed by Junn P. Cabreira
Written by Cabreira & Associates

There are less divisive forms that regionalist fervor could take other than a staunch refusal to use Tagalog-sourced Filipino. The obvious logical recourse is to use whatever language happens to be appropriate – and in narrative discourse that’s set in most of the Visayas and Mindanao, this would usually entail Cebuano. There’s a type of narrative presentation that used to thrive in the region (and occasionally beyond) that also happens to have an industrial base perfect for the drive toward economic expansion in the South. We’re talking about Cebuano-language cinema, of course, which historically has been the only viable local alternative to Manila-based film production. The difference thus far has been strictly geographic and linguistic, but that doesn’t mean that more preferable differences couldn’t be worked out, or that more appealing similarities couldn’t be enhanced.

11011The latest Cebuano production, Eh … Kasi … Bisaya!, may be forgiven on a number of counts, all premised on the reality that the last Visayan film was released about eight years ago – too far back for anyone to even imagine the possibility that the region was doing its own films as early as the 1930s, reigning supreme over Manila and even foreign films whenever and wherever they happened to compete. Several major Filipino film talents, mostly in the field of acting, were recruited from Cebuano cinema, and a whole lot of innovations in terms of production and promotions has been tried and tested in the region. Somewhat more qualifiable are the titles themselves, the more reputable ones including the late Natalio Bacalso’s Salingsing sa Kasakit, Emmanuel H. Borlaza’s Anino sa Villa Lagrimas, Amado Cortez’s Gimingaw Ako…, and Leroy Salvador’s Badlis sa Kinabuhi. The cause of dissatisfaction can be traced to the fact that the Cebuano market, although highly dependable, is not as large (and therefore not as profitable) as that for Tagalog films.

11011Hence, it’s the cost-cutters who’ve attracted more attention: the past two decades, for example, saw the likes of Borlaza’s The Batul of Mactan, which revived regional production through its combination of a faded Manila star, Eddie Peregrina, and a rising one, Chanda Romero; Joe Macachor’s Ang Manok ni San Pedro, which was shot in super-8mm. and blown up, grains and all, to 35mm., thus inexpensively providing the region with its first color film; and Borlaza’s Rosaryohan sa Kasakit, the last Cebuano film previous to the current one, which enabled its producers to invest handsomely afterward in Manila-based production with Shake, Rattle & Roll, then lose disreputably with a less-than-adequate skin flick.

11011With Bisaya! a form of incentive long denied the Manila-based industry has supposedly been extended: the film was reportedly exempted from paying taxes. If this is true (or legally possible), then we ought to see more financiers following the example of the Bisaya! producers, plus perhaps an Iloko-language film or two, what with northern regional production boasting of a grand total of two titles on record (Karayo in 1941 and Soldado in 1978, as per a report by film historian Teddy Co).[1] Cinema should always go beyond reviviscence whenever possible, and one can only hope that Cebuano cinema could eventually serve to demonstrate its people’s claims to self-sufficiency. Any incentive granted to Bisaya! may be made to apply to future Cebuano productions, this time with emphasis on qualitative achievements. Even better, a Cebuano-language film retrospective can and should be organized, prior perhaps to the holding of a Cebuano-language film festival consisting of all-new entries.

11011Manila-based practitioners may find reasons to work in the South, and these should not necessarily be always monetary in nature. Cebuano officials might find that the idea of offering greater creative freedom could prove to be the crucial turning point in upgrading the stature of Cebuano-language cinema from a mere adjunct of Manila’s to a valid global capital in itself. Some future producer might want to retain the regional language in a Manila release, providing translations through subtitles.[2] Other just-as-urgent measures would be the provision of formal film education and training in Visayan schools as well as the completion of a comprehensive filmography of Cebuano-language films drawn, since not all such films were released in Metro Manila, from regional sources instead. The possibilities for growth are numerous, and we haven’t even begun to consider what themes and materials can be put to good use, given such a conscious and feasible alternative to Manila centralism. Bisaya! itself hints, daintily as it were, at the intrusions of both Manileños and Manilanized Visayans in the lives of ordinary Southern folk, and it isn’t even half-serious to begin with … or is it? In any case, we could hardly go wrong with expanding our boundaries of national film practice, tinood lagi, and there are entire islands of speakers, a linguistic nation practically, waiting to hear and see themselves onscreen once more.

[First published November 28, 1990, in National Midweek]

Notes

[1] See Teddy Co, “In Search of Philippine Regional Cinema,” Movement: Towards a New Visual Literacy 2.1 (1987): 17-20.

[2] Circa the present (2014), the emergence of the more accessible digital format resulted in a number of significant regional-language film texts. Strangely, however, these works originated as proposals selected and funded by Manila-based film festivals. With the recent introduction of the country’s second full-blown film program in Cebu, appropriately enough, it may be a matter of time before full-steam regional production can get under way once more. In contrast with the spectacle of the Cebuano-language prints of Bisaya! being pulled out of Manila theaters after non-Cebuano-speaking audiences complained that they couldn’t understand the dialogue, it would also be a far simpler and less costly matter to ensure that the releases feature translations for non-Cebuano viewers.

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Black & Blue & Red

Bayani
Directed and written by Raymond Red

Not much has already been written about Bayani, considering its significance in the local context, but what we’ve got may be enough to start off a long round of discussion. I don’t think the debate could center on its merits as film, since even a first screening could yield some pretty obvious (and painful) lessons on the nature and purpose of cinema, or any cultural vehicle for that matter. One also has to lay aside of course the arguments of the film’s apologists, who may be seen to come from a direction similar to most religious or political fundamentalists – namely, that the film is automatically validated by the very fact of the nobility of its origin and its maker’s intentions. The difficulty in assessing the achievement of Bayani from a strictly formalist standpoint lies precisely in its conformity to a long-outmoded notion of cinema as art, one that ascribes the medium to its technological parent, photography, and thence to its spiritual forebear, painting, by way of the realist mode.

11011This is not surprising considering the filmmaker’s background, but it also serves as a commentary on the difficulty (or perhaps futility) of film study and training within academically prescriptible methods. As it stands, Bayani is an impressively realized work of visual art, and it just-as-impressively struggles toward cinematic realization, but it somehow falls – not flat, but short. Considering its impossibly minimal (by mainstream industry standard) Php 2-million budget, as well as its unwieldy technical process (35mm. blown up from 16mm.), one simply ought to give it to Raymond Red et al. for turning natural light sources and field recording into a semblance of acceptable competence and occasional brilliance.

11011Yet one has to deal with the experience of Bayani as film, and without even counting in the Filipinoness of the material and its audience, the work urgently requires a raison d’être bigger than itself. Which fortunately exists: for, if nothing else, Bayani can rest on the historical claim of being the first assault of a highly vocal (and critical) circle of authentically independent film practitioners who, it now turns out, do possess aspirations to supplanting the mainstream after all. This may account for the holy-as-thou response of those who purport to represent the “popular” side of the conflict – a response that could backfire if one takes into account the actual potential of the group, or even of Raymond Red alone.

11011I would agree with the consensus of those in the know that Red has done far better work in the short format, but I would hasten to add that it’s actually misadventures like Bayani that provide clearer lessons and incentives for growth, especially for those who stake their reputation on art above all else. Red was totally ill-advised to venture on a historical feature with nothing more than technical prowess under his hat, even if it were (and this I could believe) the biggest hat of its kind in the country at the moment.

11011What Bayani has resulted to can therefore be attributed to the greenness of Red’s preparation in two crucial areas: history and drama, which conspired in rendering the end-product no different from an action-genre sample, complete with strictly observed moralistic judgments (Bonifacio and his followers on the saints’ side and “Heneral” et al. on the sinners’) and the requisite tragic bloodbath. Typical of Red’s self-captivity is his refusal to enjoy what is after all a formula for entertainment, as well as his perception of gender roles according to subjective heterocentrist positioning: the good guys are wholly masculine, Bonifacio most of all (with smashing looks for safe measure), while the bad guys are performed with theatrical drag-queen flourishes – fie on them for not knowing, unlike Gregoria de Jesus and her friends, where women ought to belong.

11011Yet to castigate Bayani for its incapability to understand what Philippine cinema, historically speaking, has been all about (not to mention a whole heap of identity-politics complications), may be drawing a bit too much from the lessons of what is after all our model industry, Hollywood. Not that Red didn’t promise a lot in the first place; but if we look forward to whiz-kids conquering our industry before their maturation (as Steven Spielberg and the Hollywood brats had managed in the US), we may just be consigning ourselves to a future of nothing but terrifically prepared and packaged popcorn fare. It says a lot about Bayani’s choice of subject matter that Red would refuse to settle for such an easy triumph. And perhaps the last laugh belongs to those who would hesitate to conclude, Bayani notwithstanding, that local cinema’s Red scare is over.

[First published July 1, 1992, in Manila Standard]

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Book Texts – Commentaries: Pinas

People-Power Cinema

To begin with, there isn’t any celluloid commemoration, whether factual or fictionalized, of the February 1986 revolution. The only one ever attempted, Four Days in February (Marilou Diaz-Abaya directing from Jose Dalisay Jr.’s script) has been shelved and, due to the recent reversals in the political fortunes of the Armed Forces “reformists,” has been for all practical purposes rendered stale as yesterday’s pan de sal. All this may be for the better. For one thing, the revolution is widely perceived by all its major participants, regardless of their positions on the political spectrum, as still finished, although I shudder to think what further upheavals await us. More important, those heady days 20-or-so months ago (more like a generation since, you’ll agree) seem better consigned to memory: at least there’ll be a multitude, millions literally, of versions of what actually transpired, rather than a few interpretations unfairly imbued with the aura of credibility through plastic manipulations.

11011A problematic, however, can be sensed from the fact that local film criticism has been thrown into disarray by what outputs actually turned up, rather than by what have been turned down or out. Not a single serious product made since February 1986 – serious releases immediately after, but those could only have been made before the revolution! After is what matters, and the trail so far is littered with melodrama and fantasy, hardly the stuff for the sensible artistic discussion we used to know…. Well, not quite, if we count in the occasional bold and action film. But save for last year’s critics’ awardee Takaw Tukso, the former has been nothing if not the now-standard exploitation vehicle, while the latter has evolved into that most unsatisfactory mutant, the real-life hero’s story.

11011There may be a more positive stance one can take, and I believe it’s not only practicable, but absolutely indispensable, if our so-called critics are to assume once more their relationship of mutual nourishment with the industry. The problem is that the dark days of dictatorship, pardon the bromide, fostered in us an equation of grimness with seriousness. The fact that our culture is predominantly Catholic didn’t help: what comes easy is always suspicious, if not downright sinful, so value increases in proportion so suffering. The application of this sometimes-but-not-always valid assumption to film criticism becomes painfully obvious if we re-view (watch all over, that is) the titles that seemed to matter during the Marcos years. Admittedly a handful of great ones will continue to stand out, but I’ll bet my sense of vision that a disturbing proportion will emerge as having been admirable for some form of political or social daring, and nothing more. To an extent more than we care to admit, we were actually putting a premium on titles with an eye to watching the powers-that-were, who never had enough good taste to begin with, squirm from the references. Artistic achievement assumed secondary value, the icing on the pie in Imelda’s face, and sometimes, especially in the case of genre (standard box-office) titles, even became a liability because of its threatening nature. Why, if a bold or fantasy or action or melodrama movie were to be given serious consideration, who’ll pay attention to the latest academically engineered agitprop work of what’s-his-name, when his budget, not to mention his skills, couldn’t even begin to compare with the industry’s full-blast capabilities?

11011Of course this entire state of things became possible only because the viewing public occasionally made known its support through its patronage, and so our sociological framework of the masses seeking enlightenment during a period of oppression comes full circle. But now they’ve come to prefer escapist entertainment, and our pinpointing responsibilities on film- and policymakers will only amount to so much barking up the wrong signpost. The February 1986 revolution remains, after all, a happy memory, a veritable dream-come-true no scripted theatrical experience could ever hope to match. The desire to somehow extend the good feelings, even if only in the confines of a movie house, is where we’re starting from. If we’re loaded with titles that provide nothing but happy endings – which is actually the current case, even among our favorite pre-revolution filmmakers – then we better start looking for new values to champion, rather than imposing old ones. And if I may add the obvious, this is a good an opportunity as we’ll ever have to return to simple virtues of classicism in cinema – the well-told tale done with utmost competence, adding appropriate points for imagination. Where this will take us is anybody’s guess, including mine, but what matters right now is that film artistry, though always somehow with us, has never had, for reasons often beyond our control, its proper place in our hearts.

[First published October 28, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Studious Studios

The return of the studio system used to be one of the most abused bogeyisms brandished before us by prophets of gloom of various persuasions and motivations in the local movie industry. The scare died down recently, for the simple reason that the threat of studio re-domination never really returned. That was then, of course, and now all developments, to use a euphemism, indicate that no other setup exists other than that founded by and upon our modern-day movie moguls.

11011To be sure, the early confusion may have been numerological in nature. The last time a studio system flourished, it was manifested in the form of a trinity: a major, a rival, and an underdog, more popularly known as Sampaguita, LVN, and Premiere after the war. Movie stars, in an apparently instinctive bid to appropriate the axis of power among themselves, contributed greatly to the reshuffling, by attempting to violate the rule against shuttling from one outfit to another. The collapse of the studio system may have been due to the studios’ resistance to the upward mobility of their personnel, including their most prized possessions, their contract stars. All that was needed was for an entire pack of aspiring underdogs, then as now calling themselves independents, to provide lucrative options for discontented performers who’d break away from their mother companies only to find themselves blacklisted (as a form of collective protection) by the other biggies.

11011The star system, however, never really prospered beyond an individualized basis, for roughly the same reasons that the independents eventually yielded to the superstars: the individual entrants were too self-sufficient to coalesce or forge alliances, and the local market could only accommodate so much – three at a time, it seems. In a manner of speaking, the industry’s system has never really been based on independents or stars, not once; only on studios. Once the inadequacies of the alternatives between independents and superstars became clear, the time was ripe for another season of studio domination. Three at a time, then. With Agrix and Bancom Audiovision battling for supremacy during the 1970s, and a number of worthy stragglers, notably Crown-Seven, striving for third place, warnings began to be raised. Agrix folded up, so did Crown-Seven, leaving Bancom at the top and Regal, for a time an underdog, the closest rival. Bancom was then dissolved along with its larger conglomerate, and the apparent jinx suffered by those in the position of major was enough to pacify the pessimists.

11011Without much fanfare Regal took top place, while Viva came on strongly enough to claim the status of rival. Only an underdog-newcomer, the Marcos government’s Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), made enough noise by way of threatening to dislodge both occupants, and the rest of the movie industry as well, from their profitable circumstances. It took the February 1986 upheaval to eliminate, among others, this last obstacle in the re-establishment of the studio system. Seiko assumed the unlamented ECP’s underdog role, and happy days, at least for the mogul-owners, were here again.

11011So far all the evidence favors the reincarnated versions over their predecessors. They’ve been wise enough to allow the sharing of contract stars among themselves – to the detriment of the personalized social-cum-thespic training the old studios used to proffer, impose even, on an in-house basis. Lately they’ve even outdone themselves on a conceptual level. For where the old studios employed certain generic trademarks with which to identify themselves – LVN with musicals and costume spectacles, Sampaguita with fantasies and tearjerkers, Premiere with gangster stories – the present ones have taken to exchanging their corporate images with one another: Viva, which prided itself on gloss, has been attaching its name, rather than that of its sister company Falcon, to low-budget crime stories like Ex-Army and Boy Negro (formerly associable with Seiko) and recently came up with a Regal staple, a quickie musical comedy, in Buy One, Take One; Regal, on the other hand, has been taking tentative steps toward comparatively big-budget but komiks-based products (after its quickie formula failed to work in recent succession), with Nagbabagang Luha and the forthcoming update of Dyesebel; Seiko likewise has begun glossy productions in earnest, what with the satisfactory box-office returns of Hiwaga sa Balete Drive (more Regal in its comic-horror bent) and Isusumbong Kita sa Diyos (definitely a Viva formula).

Bernard Bonnin and Susan Roces, and Sharon Cuneta and Richard Gomez (left to right) as one another’s generational counterparts in Pablo Santiago’s Buy One, Take One (1988).

11011Most of these efforts were premised on the prospects of renewed moviegoer interest after the usual approaches became too predictable for (financial) comfort. No doubt the novelty of the old images carrying over into the new offerings had something to do with the encouraging turnout of viewers: Viva’s Sharon Cuneta and Phillip Salvador shedding their long-cultivated glamor, Seiko’s struggling also-rans suddenly basking in lustrous production values, Regal’s campiness to be enhanced (or perhaps defeated) by an uncharacteristically big budget. What is left for these modern-day mammoths to do is confront their one last impediment to immortality. In more than just the spiritual sense, the old studios passed away along with their founder-owners. The way the present ones are being run, it becomes easy for opponents to hope, if not in the progressive enlightenment of the moguls, in the eventual demise of Mother Lily, the del Rosarios, and Robbie Tan – a sure thing anyway, given the still-limited lifespan we have all been heir to. Decentralization may be the immediate logical response, although there remains one better strategy, the very factor that keeps certain First Golden Age titles in the consciousness of current film observers despite the virtual inactivity of the original producers: the word – but are we ready for it? – is, of course, quality.

[First published July 20, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Shooting Crap

When Joey de Leon claims he couldn’t care less about critics’ complaints regarding his use of toilet humor, the issue doesn’t revolve on the soundness of his argument. Toilet humor, as used in the context of this debate, is unofficially understood to be a sub-category of obscenity – in direct opposition to our moral guardians’ shibboleth of wholesomeness. By extension, the argument goes, toilet humor, as a form of obscenity, is socially undesirable and therefore should be subject to suppression. No one has ventured to raise the issue of legality so far, although this would clinch the controversy in a convenient way. Anyone, de Leon included, could easily answer that the antiquated nature of our censorship laws renders such an approach amorphous at best; still, the issue at stake remains unarticulated.

11011Joey de Leon gets away with toilet humor – has the right to it, in a manner of speaking – simply because he has been so darn successful of late. During the early days of his trio with the Sotto brothers he might have taken the pounding with, well, a grain of salt; their always moderate and occasionally pleasing box-office returns could serve to ease the sting somehow. But now he has struck it rich, and it’s not so much the power he holds over the characteristically purchasable movie press: appearances to the contrary, he’s not that crude, and he need not be so in the first place. It’s the implication of so fail-safe a formula on so financially frank a system, when any project without de Leon’s pretensions to satire – without de Leon himself, even – could now be assured of record-shattering box-office returns by merely purveying shit jokes on primetime.

11011In short, the moguls owe so much quantifiable gratitude to Joey de Leon for this good-as-gold discovery. Not even Imelda Marcos’s pera-sa-basura [money-in-trash] projects could prove as conclusively as Starzan et al. did that the sound of cash registers ringing could compensate for the fumes of unflushed concepts. And even if a movie writer had enough sense (and guts) to dismiss the big-timers’ current sanguinity with what may eventually be known as the de Leon formula (endless swigs of castor oil following entire plateloads of goodies, with a movie crew on the alert), a rebuttal happens to be waiting in the wings from the opposite direction. The logic runneth thus: to question a person on the basis of principle is a simple thing to do, but when that principle happens to enjoy popular support, then the possibility of claiming to be better than the majority, antithetical to the democratic premise of raising questions on their behalf in the first place, emerges. This puts the de Leon “critic” in a position too awkwardly similar to that of the cultural censor, who derives his raison d’être from the perverse notion that the people, even (or especially) in a democracy, could not know what is good for them.[1]

11011There may be two ways out of the impasse that both sides find themselves ranged against at the moment. One is that of historical materialism – which basically posits that nothing lasts forever, least of all a thing of no real value. Just as Dolphy’s piss jokes and Tito, Vic and Joey’s snot jokes saw their respective heydays come and go, so will Joey de Leon’s fecal fixations – if not in the near future, then along with de Leon himself, may his sould find peace (no critics in heaven?) come the time. The trouble with this attitude is of course its superciliousness, consciously partaking as it does of the same judgmentalist approach that it initially seeks to distance itself from. The only other option, which may seem the least desirable because of its passivity, used to be impossible to adopt because of the polarizing consequences of the previous political dispensation; if Marcos were still around, the toilet-humor controversy would have been resolved in favor of one side or the other, eventually depending on the perceived benefits to the state.

11011It may be time for a little more sophistication then. How about regarding such devices as attempts at cultural innovations, the breaking down of taboos in preparation for possibly more serious discourses in future? Part of my reservations about de Leon’s objectors is the sneaking suspicion that the campaign would not have taken on a strong degree of outrage had Starzan, if not the rest, been a Critically Defensible Work of Art. But what if, then? Would we have expended all our intellectual resources defending a crap scene (as was proved aesthetically viable in an early Wim Wenders exploit, Kings of the Roads) – eyeball-to-eyeball with Manuel Morato if necessary, just because art’s sake was at stake in this instance?

11011One way of looking at the situation is through the perspective of guerrilla strategy. Filipino film censors have traditionally been suckers for artistic provocation; the best way to get their danders up in the past was to inject an offensive aural or visual detail in an otherwise integral prestige project. But beyond the delight of watching them mouth the most culturally illiterate justifications for the imposition of already ill-advised policies, the consequences – stricter censorship procedures, mangled or banned products – were definitely too exorbitant for all those involved. Since in their view the less artistically minded products pose proportionately less harm to the community, why not allow such items to take the lead in toppling the ramparts of convention? Come the time when a real and responsible filmmaker will find it absolutely necssary to put in a cussword or a toilet scene or a subversive idea, the precedents would have been set, the producers would have been satisfied, the masses would have been bored with the usual treatment, and everyone might be a bit happier with the attempt. Had Ishmael Bernal done Manila by Night (whose entire toilet pick-up scene, among countless others, was deleted in the original release) late last year, he might have to thank, among others, Joey de Leon for the trophies he’d now be collecting.

[First published April 4, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] Viewers of the TV program where Joey de Leon found himself fending off attacks from both political positions would have recognized Manuel L. Morato, designated chief censor by then-President Corazon Aquino and subsequent candidate for the presidency, representing the conservative sector; and Behn Cervantes, theater and film director, critic, actor, and professor, and former political detainee, representing orthodox progressives.

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Fleshmongering

One of the early distinctions, dubious though it seems, of the 1990s is our latest designation of what we’d all known the past two decades or so: that the sex film is marketed primarily for its audience’s carnal titillation. Ever since institutional controls on the treatment of sex eased up (though gave up would be the more satisfactory description) during the ’60s, our film practitioners had been relying on a series of merely suggestive, sometimes even coy, labels for what were in a sense products of a worldwide and continuing cultural revolution. The first word was bomba, drawn from the political turbulence of the period of its emergence, the pre-martial law years. One would expect that the original namesake – the pro-activist sector, not Roger Arienda (whose nickname would not have stuck had his public ignored him) – would have resented the industry’s adoption of one of its virtues to refer to a diametrically opposed form of passion, personal rather than social. Instead, both sides seemed to have arrived at an understanding that they had more in common as subversives committed to certain material ends, and so demonstrators then were not averse to patronizing the latest sex flick, just as the more sensible bomba practitioners, particularly Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, and Celso Ad. Castillo, would turn out socially critical subjects once 1081 had effectively closed the season of open expression for both camps.

11011Bold, the next term, served to consolidate a number of mildly descriptive labels, among which “wet look” proved to be the most graphic (and therefore most popular). “Bold” is of course antediluvian relative to bomba; even Gerardo de Leon’s FAMAS record-setter, Huwag Mo Akong Limutin, which copped out on an abortion scene (reputedly its most shocking feature), was called worse things by the censors – and this was during the 1950s.[1] But what revitalized the genre, allowing it to even surpass its predecessor, was precisely the aforementioned social consciousness that our filmmakers developed along the way. No bold film was ever as, well, frontal as the typical bomba movie was; on the other hand, no bomba product could equal in significance the best martial law-era movies that employed sex either as additional come-on or as legitimate topic for filmic discourse.

11011The decline of the Marcos regime made possible an approximation of the bomba era, while the fall of the Marcoses led to a complete backslide. Obviously “bold” wasn’t bold enough anymore. The acronym penekula (from penetration + pelikula) was coined ex post facto, with the renewed moralism generated by the 1986 revolution plus the cheaper resources afforded by video combining to making graphic sex films too notorious and small-time for a reputable and long-term undertaking. And so we now have sex trip, although where it will take us is really the big question. The name is still too novel for generalized considerations, associated as it is with an aspirant-to-major studio, Seiko Films, which still has to pay its dues for industrial success by way of awards-worthy projects. If the term sticks, it won’t be the first time a studio engineered a classifiable trend in movie-making: if my memory serves me right, Regal Films, then also a struggling outfit, identified itself with bold-film production, to the point of incurring the ire of a culture-meddling Imelda Marcos.

11011The main difference, however, is that all these titles – bomba, bold, even penekula – managed to redeem themselves with projects memorable for more than just their extent of skin exposure, while “sex trip” just happens to be more frank a description than the rest.[2] Nothing on the order of Nympha, Pagdating sa Dulo, or Tubog sa Ginto from the bomba era, Aliw, Brutal, Burlesk Queen, Karnal, Moral, Salome, Sinner or Saint, or Manila by Night from the bold period, or Boatman, Private Show, Scorpio Nights, or Takaw Tukso prior to (but within the spirit of) the penekula trend can serve to so far justify the sex-trip films as worthy of, say, aesthetic appreciation by the year 2000. Not even the emergence of a performer comparable to Yvonne, Chanda Romero, Rio Locsin, Amy Austria, Lorna Tolentino, or Jaclyn Jose, or the spectacle of an established star like Eddie Garcia, Vic Vargas, Rita Gomez, Vilma Santos, or Gina Alajar trying on genre for the possibility of career enhancement.

11011A kind remark is in order, though, and it is the recognition of the fact that the sex-trip trend is laboring under a severely imposing tradition. Any self-respecting artist would think twice, to say the least, before allowing her product to be called, under whatever currently fashionable appellation, a Pinoy sex film. What the name “sex trip” has going for it, however, is something stronger than a mere sense of history: there appears to be the promise of profit in the term, not to mention the convenience of an abbreviation. How far the potential can be contracted, pardon the puns, should give way to every imaginative attempt at its expansion.

[First published April 18, 1990, in National Midweek]

Notes

[1] Sharing this admittedly anecdotal detail regarding what may be Gerardo de Leon’s other major missing film (aside from Daigdig ng mga Api): the scriptwriter of Huwag Mo Akong Limutin, Jose Flores Sibal, turned out to have been a distant relative on my father’s side. We had our first and only conversation literally on the eve of his departure as migrant to the US – I didn’t know then that I would have my own opportunity to pursue graduate studies in the same country a few years later, and got too busy when I arrived to be able to contact anyone. Before he left he turned over a copy of his script for the missing de Leon title, which I read before depositing the manuscript with the University of the Philippines Film Center. It deserves a more extensive discussion, but I might opt to provisionally echo the same response when I read how dismayed Petronilo Bn. Daroy was when he managed to watch Daigdig before it got lost. The narratives that de Leon was handed could only hope to touch on sensitive material (agrarian reform in Daigdig, abortion in HMAL). Daroy was the best culture critic of his generation and de Leon the best Filipino film stylist who ever lived. Cold War culture abhorred any hint of resistance to contemporary patriarchal authority – which is why one will have to search elsewhere for evidence of a successful collaboration, starting with de Leon’s subsequent project with Sibal, the period adaptation of José Rizal’s El Filibusterismo.

[2] The sex-film trend that succeeded Seiko Films’ sex-trip was termed titillating film, intended to designate more open anatomical depictions, including female and male genitalia. This predictably resulted in conflicts between liberals and moralists, with the Catholic church (via the interventionist Cardinal Sin) weighing in at one point. Significantly, both sex-trip and titillating-film trends constituted the first instance of more than one sex-themed fad being initiated by the same studio (Seiko Films, whose hype was handled by seasoned publicist Oskee Salazar – per Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., founding chair of the Young Critics Circle and founding director of the US-based Filipino Arts & Cinema International). José B. Capino, in “Soothsayers, Politicians, Lesbian Scribes: The Philippine Movie Talk Show,” ascribed the new trend to “more relaxed censorship laws” (Planet TV: A Global Television Studies Reader, eds. Lisa Parks and Shanti Kumar [New York University Press, 2002], 262-73).

11011Caution should be exerted in the historical exercise of recollecting the acronyms carefully and cleverly formulated by Salazar. ST for sex-trip was meant to evoke a jokey Taglish vulgarism, “standing titi” or erect penis (the masculine counterpart of HP or “happy puki”), while titillating film was shortened to TF and nothing more; the immediate pop-culture referent in this case was “talent fee” – an utterly innocuous expression, inasmuch as the transgression was already performed in the very descriptor “titillating,” as suggested in the foregoing ST. The claim by a film authority that the actual abbrevation was TT Film must be regarded as culturally illogical and therefore spurious, erroneous, and presumptive.

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Firmament Occupation

Generally but strangely regarded as one of the perennial problems of Philippines cinema is what has come to be called the “star system.” Stars, or extremely successful movie performers, demand astronomical figures that invariably limit a project’s allocations for other aspects of production. The obvious logical lapse in this formulation is the way performers are distinguished from the rest of the elements of film – as if directing, scriptwriting, cinematography, editing, and clapboard operation, among other activities, can contribute to a movie’s excellence, while acting cannot. Worse, this assumes that characters, the central feature of commercial cinema and a whole lot of non-commercial movies as well, are separable from all the other things that go into the completion of a filmwork.

11011The problem lies in the fusion of two highly charged terms to a situation that isn’t remediable by any long shot, much less a close-up. “Stars” exist wherever intense human activity is complemented with high visibility; cinema happens to be the most obvious and permeative modern-day example, but one can have stars in other contexts too – politics, academe, religion, fashion design, smuggling, entomology, etc. The absurdity of aspiring toward a star-less ideal can be seen in the execution of a political system that averred as much: first, the masses themselves became the supposed stars; eventually, the leaders, in the guise of representing their constituencies, assumed for themselves positions of prominence. The other word, “system,” is the one that compounds the problem. As far as movie histories anywhere have exhibited, there may have been vacillations between a studio system and an independent system (and a trend toward total government intervention locally during the latter part of Marcos rule), but there has never been so far such a thing hereabouts as a star system. Strictly and analogously speaking, a star system depends, in full material terms, on the existence of stars – meaning, stars not only facilitate productions by the guarantee of their presence, but also provide the wherewithal for the productions themselves.

11011The combination is crucial. A star may have been the entire motivation for a particular project, while on another occasion she may have engaged in film production, but unless she invested her own money in the first instance and carried enough box-office clout to be the movie’s main attraction in the second, then she would never have been essential part of the movie system; she’d be just a star, if that were semantically possible, in the first place, or a star who happened to produce in the second.[1] In the beginning it wasn’t all that simple, precisely because matters were much simpler then. Anyone who had both money and ego could go into movie-making: one could cook up her own project, assemble a production staff, direct them and herself, and collect the returns in good time. The giants of early Hollywood cinema – Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith – and their local counterparts – Jose Nepomuceno, Vicente Salumbides, among others – were virtual one-person studios, with every possible filmmaking skill, including lead performing, arrogated unto one and the same individual.

11011To a certain extent we still have devotees of this almost-ancient era who try to keep the faith when they can: America’s Woody Allen and our very own … well, Celso Ad. Castillo. Filmmaking, however, and turn-of-the-millenium life too, have becoome too complex and fast-paced and expensive to allow for integral approaches to anything, especially creative endeavors. This we saw for ourselves with the story of our studio system. The producers, three of them actually, who had enough foresight and managerial skill to allow for specialization and long-term planning, eventually dominated the industry, giving rise to a so-called Golden Age of stability and consistency of output during the 1950s. But because the Big Three moguls refused to recognize the even more specialized claims of movie workers, including stars, to extreme fluctuations in income, insisting instead on fixed salaries as the basis for industrial professionalism, the less principle-obsessed outfits were able to bid for the services of the talents who mattered, and consequently toppled the system of studios.

11011These more pragmatic producers, who called themselves independents, gave rise once more to the possibility of self-production, this time with a more lucrative twist: not only would a star entitle herself to the proceeds of her own film, she would also be able to guard against creative sabotage and, most important, boost her stocks further in the market for acting services. The rate of a Fernando Poe Jr. or a Dolphy would now be computed on the basis of the profits either of them could realize if the FPJ or RVQ production houses took charge of the projects, rather than how much their previous films had made for their respective financiers. Hence what we have at present is really a historical confluence of two opposing systems – studio domination (three major outfits) and independent production, with a highly distinctive and restricted (and aging) star subsystem subsumable under the latter; there also happens to be an even smaller but less definite circle of performers who produce films, but not necessarily themselves in these films, and much less themselves to sell such films.

11011Are these categorizations always significant? Not so much in the consideration of how the presence or absence of a star in her own production provides any form of psychological (or now-emergent ideological) modifications, but more in the area of pinpointing what constitutes a problem for study, rather than an occasion for well-worn rhetoric. Take out censorship or taxation, and you could conceivably realize some forms of improvement in film production, if not in film quality; Marcos-era experiments in industry control provided more-than-adequate proof of the workings of such dynamics. Eliminate stars, and if they don’t get replaced, then maybe the movie system itself has burned out.
[First published May 30, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] I was not surprised to learn later that this insight had already been articulated, although I first heard the name Edgar Morin as the co-director of Jean Rouch of the pioneering cinema verité entry Chronique d’un été (1961). In a later class on film stardom, I read an English translation of his 1957 book Les stars – which was not the first time a notion I’d worked out turned out to have been affirmed (or challenged) by a previously articulated idea.

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Blues Hit Parade

What may soon evolve into a form of cultural schizophrenia, if it isn’t at that stage already, is the current contrariety of attitudes toward the state of Philippine cinema. On the one hand are the pessimists, who resumed their lamentation once it became clear that the four-year-old 1986 revolution was not going to result in anything on the order of the best outputs of the Marcos years; on the other hand, the optimists point out that, after the revolution’s alarming dead stretch, local movie producers never had it so good, with one box-office record after another being broken in rapid succession. I must stress at the outset that my sympathies lie with the latter group, and that the lure of lucre just happens to be one obvious and too-practical reason. For too long the critics of Filipino movies took their calling in an adulterated sense – i.e., judging severely instead of judging fairly, which is the primary definition of criticism. What we may be hearing now is a reassessment of the worsening portion of Marcos rule as the glory years of local cinema, but if you go back to that era, you may have difficulty distinguishing the condemnatory tone of critical writing then from what you may be able to find today.

11011The upshot is that since our industry practitioners were not made aware of the excellence of their collective performance then, they had to accept the rejection of their situation along with the system that spawned whatever merits it contained. In short, after the change in political administration, everyone was completely in the dark as to where to begin: a return to active institutional support (Marcos’s example) was out of the question, while on the other hand the movie-going public seemed to have fled along with the regime, leaving almost a year-long period of nothing but box-office traumas.

11011Congratulations then are in order for our industry leaders, for the success of their concept of a turnabout. I feel confident enough to even bet that no other local industry has managed its own resurrection in as financially triumphant a manner as did our movie practitioners. Balancing the absence of absolutely reliable box-office reports with the assurance that no one in her right mind would readily boast of grand profits owing to an ornery tax situation, the recent feats of box-office records being broken much more often than they ever used to be would be something quite phenomenal. And yet…this time our critics are on target in bemoaning the decline in quality of our movies, and we have enough reason to fear that the enthusiasm of local producers may be verging on recklessness. The reason hinges on the correlation of both factors: box-office returns are not enough precisely because of the absence of quality in the outputs that facilitate these returns – not so much because of the absence of long-term or overseas profitability, much less a non-material consideration of the implications on cultural hygiene.

11011The danger of relying primarily on lighweight material to draw in heavyweight profits lies in the demonstrable possibility that what used to be relatively lighweight may not turn out to be so anymore, especially if it proves profitable enough. The mechanics can result in some truly panicky complications: quickies make more money, so more people want to be in on the action, thereby spreading thin the amount of cash available for profits. Among the interested parties would be the government, which can (and did) increase its share through taxes, thereby diluting even further the profitability of easy movie-making. The possible scenario veers between less box-office winners (and record-setters) and cheaper quickies – with the worst case combining both. And the closer we approach either situaton, the farther away we get from the possible solutions. The decline in local, or more accurately Metro Manila-based, profitability points to the potential of exploring the only regional market that has proved historically viable: the Cebuano-language circuit, now worth another serious consideration because of the economic resurgence of the South; Cebuano movie production, however, petered out in the past precisely because the region could not provide the profits that Metro Manila can offer, so this results in a closed circle, with everyone left out.

11011The other option is the exportation of our products, and here we must initially contend with both our colonial sense of inferiority plus the slow pace of returns – possibly necessitating the offering of initial titles as sacrifices to the altar of long-term investments. Once these are surmounted, an even greater hitch emerges: the international-scale quickie would of course be Cecil B. DeMillean beside its Pinoy counterpart, and coming from our premise that big-budget production would be too infeasible at this point, camote cultivation might not seem so small-time an alternative after all. A sadder consequence awaits those who appreciate film for reasons that render mammon secondary. The big, proud, expensive movie would be as much a part of the past as the mammoth, its appropriate namesake, while the modest achievement will become too costly to produce on a regular basis. We can fantasize about Hollywood brats coming to the rescue of our masters the way they did elsewhere – until we wake up and realize that the countries these now-needy filmmakers represent once worked hard to create a favorable impression on the international film community, while all we every really did was produce quickies to break our box-office records, with our own government making sure that the profits did not outstrip its capacity for “sharing” them.

11011Ah well. Maybe then we can all learn to read and write in a common language and arrive at some plateau of achievement, before we discover how to level it down once more, but that would be another (non-filmic) story.

[First published June 27, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Book Texts – Pinoy Film Reviews I: Celluloid (Pre-1990s) Era

Exceptions

Kamakalawa
Directed and written by Eddie Romero

Kisapmata
Directed by Mike de Leon
Written by Mike de Leon, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., and Raquel Villavicencio

Two movies – one by an old-school director and another by a considerably younger one – serve to demonstrate the classic conflict between theme and technique. Eddie Romero’s Kamakalawa is prevented from being entirely effective by its defective production values; Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata, on the other hand, very effectively says little. Kamakalawa is Eddie Romero’s third ambitious production since his auspicious comeback in 1976 (the other two are Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? and Aguila). Set during the local pre-Spanish era, it tells the story of Kauing, a commoner who becomes involved in the intrigues among gods and noblemen. His adventures begin with the assassination of the reigning sultan by a rebel datu, upon which the princess calls on him to accompany her in summoning loyalist reinforcements. The mission is temporarily abandoned, however, as Kauing decides to save some elves and noblemen from the tyranny of the river goddess, in the process unwittingly seducing her. Meanwhile the sea god has to maintain his dominion over people, if not over nature. The river goddess, for her part, will have nothing to do with such to-dos, so long as her territorial concerns are left in order. Inevitably the sea and mountain gods confront and destroy each other, just as their respective mortal armies do. The river goddess’s downfall lies in her love for Kauing, which the fire god will not permit; to solve her predicament she embodies Kauing’s true love, the princess. In like manner, the surviving populace abandons its conflicting causes and acknowledges Kauing for his confidence in and compassion for humankind – a portrait of the leader as less concerned with than ignorant of politics, yet accomplished in the skills of diplomacy.

11011There is considerable intelligence in the interrelation of divine and temporal issues in Kamakalawa – at least enough to justify the combination of various local mythologies into a new and original whole which will annoy no one except purists. When, for example, the forest god beckons vampires to vanquish his peeves, the realization of a hierarchy among supernatural creatures, which makes them no better than their moral counterparts, is made clear, regional incompatibility notwithstanding. Even Philippine pre-Spanish society in Kamakalawa is somehow tailored to fit the filmmaker’s imaginative fabric. In a specific instance, Kauing, a tiller of soil (“clodhopper,” as the international version’s subtitles translate), proves his prowess over a haughty nobleman by first sparing his life in a royal bout and then saving him from various enchantments wrought by the gods of nature. The consideration of chronology – of the emergence of peasants only after the decline of indentured slavery and its attendant nobility – hardly matters anymore, subsumed as it is under the filmmaker’s interest in the superiority of productive forces over non-productive ones.

11011Filmic brilliance, however, cannot be confirmed to conceptualization alone. As in any other artistic medium, substance could be either enhanced or subverted by style. In the case of Kamakalawa Romero’s statements are not exactly negated by his direction; nevertheless, considering their scope and magnitude, they have not been handled with the high degree of expertise they deserve either. The most embarrassing examples of technique getting in the way in Kamakalawa are in its use of special effects. To put it kindly, the in-camera tricks and special laboratory processes employed in the movie are inferior to those of local fantasy films of lesser budgets. Care could have been exercised in minor matters such as the depiction of proportions among gods, mortals, and elves, the exploration by Kauing of the river goddess’s lair, or the appearance of a musical ghost. If these instances sound interesting, then the movie’s supernatural highlights are definite downers. The climatic showdown between the forest god and the sea god is appalling – but not because the protagonists lay the landscape to waste; their weapons do not behave like the flashes of lightning they are supposed to be, their clashes are mere washouts, the havoc they wreak could be outdone by faulty firecrackers.

11011This is not to say, however, that Kamakalawa is downright disastrous. As pointed out earlier, Romero’s healthy humanism is reason enough for the movie to be seriously taken. No other local director would have the sagacity, not to mention the audacity (considering the speaker’s ridiculous costume), to furnish a character, the fire god, with a monologue on power, existence, and eternity – and make it sound sincere enough for comfort.

11011Kisapmata, meanwhile, has everything it takes – and more, if one were to quantify Vic Silayan’s performance – to succeed where Kamakalawa fails. Taken as independent contributions to a creative collective, the various filmic elements of Kisapmata are, without exception, exceptional. In audiovisual terms, nothing in the film is obtrusive or inadequate – a balancing feat by any technical standard. Hence while watching the movie the viewer would be drawn along from beginning to end by correct composition and consistent visual tone; one would be helped along by sparse but purposeful auditory exploits; one would even be moved by the performances of individual members of the cast. On the whole, however, Kisapmata is nothing more than a narration of the events that lead to a father’s killing of his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and self; any relevant issue – incest, obsession, fascism, rebellion – is treated as an incidental angle, then quickly cast aside in the pursuit of plot.

Mike de Leon (b. 1947), the next Filipino talent to be featured at the Cannes Film Festival, after Lino Brocka.

11011Consider, say, the incest angle. The act itself is suggested by the father’s entrance into his daughter’s bedroom, with a little help from an earlier confrontation between the mother and daughter confirming the practice within the family. This is a discreet manner of presentation of a social taboo, which no doubt facilitated the movie’s passage through the eye of our rusty censorship needle. Whether it serves the movie’s purpose is a different consideration altogether. In fact the graphic depiction of another social taboo – the killing of kinsfolk – would not be in keeping with this attempt at adumbrating a comparatively lesser aberration. The social issues are just as inadequately treated. Lip service is paid to progressive concerns, such as references to political detention centers and acceptance of police corruption. Mere mention, however, is not the same as discussion: for all the complexity of the issues raised, the movie’s singular dialectic begins and ends with the father’s fatal obsession with his daughter.

11011This disturbing dichotomy between technical wealth and thematic poverty is best exemplified in the relationships among the characters. For in Kisapmata, the excellence of individual performances provides an illusion of successful characterization where there actually is none. The practice of incest, for example, should have introduced psychological changes in the daughter beyond normative dimensions. As it turns out, she responds to her mother’s calls for aid and rebels when she finds out that these are pretenses planned by her father; also, in spite of her conventionality (she resorts to religion regularly), she submits to another man – her husband, with whom she had premarital relations – without discernible traumatic consequences. The father, played with a plethora of nuances by Vic Silayan, comes on as an imposing figure right from the start, and remains that way throughout. In this regard, his fateful outburst at the movie’s climax may be safely logical – but not, by any means, tragic. A serious oversight on the filmmaker’s part prevented the evolution of the father into an understandable figure; before the shootout he is simplistically dismissed by his family as a psychotic. But since he is made to carry out the climax literally and figuratively singlehandedly, his character, to say the least, should have been provided with subjective developments.

11011Creating sympathy thus for the father would have been less bold than the incest angle, but it would have made the shootout at the end cathartic instead of simply shocking. In this sense Kisapmata can be regarded as representative of the Hollywood influence on contemporary Philippine cinema: technique-conscious, paradoxically to a fault. A return to thematic awareness in the manner of old guards like Romero would be more welcome – presuming, of course, that the filmmaker concerned is already capable of technical competence to begin with.

[First published November-December 1981 in The Review]

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Down but Not Out

Nektar
Directed by Francis “Jun” Posadas
Written by Eric and Susan Kelly Posadas

Tubusin Mo ng Dugo
Directed by Pepe Marcos
Written by Jose Carreon

This year’s first local entries classifiable under the troublesome categories of bold and action indicate some bright spots ahead for post-revolution Philippine cinema. To review recent cultural developments, bold and action films used to be the closest that our serious filmmakers utilized in working out compromises with their financiers; comedy and melodrama were simply considered incapable of presenting “messages,” and therefore generally unworthy of aesthetic attention. I recall how, in a period of only occasional filmic achievement (which was most of the time, then as now), I would go to a name director’s bold or action entry in the hope of encountering sensible discourse, but would disabuse myself of such a notion when it came to comedies and melodramas.

11011Then came 1986, and notwithstanding pessimists’ claims, things did change, even in the local film scene. Comedy and melodrama took the forefront in both box-office and artistic terms, while bold films permutated into the hard-core quickies reminiscent of pre-martial law times, and action movies ventured in the opposite direction – real-life stories done with the ultimate in production costs. Nektar and Tubusin Mo ng Dugo, bold and action films respectively, seem to point toward a return to the median, as it were, for these temporarily lost film types. I’ll readily own that I might be too optimistic about the first title, but the second can be taken as a case for generic survival: instead of breaking as far away as possible from the films that seem to be doing well, why not figure out how best to adopt the factors that excite the mass viewership about them?

11011Hence, the spectacle of witnessing some form of industrial osmosis, with a bold film attempting to take on the plot complications and technical competence of melodrama, and an action film spiced (spiked, even) with comic routines. I’d like to be kind enough, at least in print, in pointing out that, the way most current bold films go, Nektar could have been worse. It’s bad enough as it is, but you could sense an aspiration toward, well, making sense. The story’s our well-worn odyssey of the Virginal Barrio Lass getting corrupted by the Big City, with the melodramatic, or at least komiks-influenced, twist of Morality Triumphing in the End. Before you start groaning in your creaky theater seats, let me remind you that this material has proved remarkably resilient through the decades, with each movie generation having its own claim to posterity in a least one such topical example: Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag honors the moviemakers of the seventies in this way, although of course Nektar could only hope to distinguish its own specific period in time, and no more.

11011There’s an even more painful aspect to the movie, and that’s the care, believe it or not, with which it was executed. Nektar must be the most carefully made bold film since Takaw Tukso two years ago – but one must be careful to take this in the context of the common run of such films, rather than the quality of the specific titles being compared. The difference, and this is where Nektar fails, is that its makers have just not been up to the challenge, meaning the effort shows in the final product. It becomes almost embarrassing to see a movie so sincere yet nevertheless substandard in all respects. A few portions do stand as set pieces, specifically the heroine wandering in the Luneta by night, and then much later discovering how her supposed savior betrayed her.

11011Of course this only makes the rest of the movie almost unbearable in its pursuit of a reasonable but overworked story framework. I guess in the final analysis, a little figuring out about the specific nature of filmwork could have helped: Maynila, although it resembles Nektar on paper, salvaged itself by opting for a semi-documentary approach; in the other direction, melodrama films contain the potential for degenerating into camp, which though not as promising at least provides a provocative element of fun. How sad to fall in between, losing the interest of both serious observers and escapists – unless a hard-core version exists somewhere; but then that takes the fun out of knowing you did a good movie and showing it to friends and potential acquaintances. In which case how sad again, etc.

11011After Nektar, Tubusin Mo ng Dugo emerges as a minor cause for celebration. Pepe Marcos, a former editor (who also doubles for the same function in his films) who turned director four years ago, first came up with a passable debut, also a Rudy Fernandez starrer, in Sumuko Ka … Ronquillo! Neither practitioner has come up with totally execrable work since, but in Tubusin I’m happy to report a rarity of sorts – their best individual work so far. The qualifications should not be far behind though. Tubusin’s still a customary product, made for no greater shakes than the usual action entertainment contained in its main plotline. Normally I’d say it suffers from an imbalance in story development, but in fact this is where its strong point emerges. Instead of the usual establishment of good guys being lined up against bad guys, Tubusin takes an expository detour and provides a picaresque description of the lead character’s misadventures within a shrewdly observed social milieu.

11011Yessir, your average martyr of a mother happens to be a nag, your friendly neighborhood police chief resorts to third-degree, and your noble working-class savage gambles and drinks when he can, and even sets himself up for an occasional hustle! I was bewildered, to put it mildly, and then I started to wonder how long such a good thing could last. My worries were answered as soon as they occurred to me. Turned out that the mother feared for her son’s future, ditto the police chief, and though the hero-son gets to sire a family of his own, his involvement – unwilling, of course – in a big-time crime syndicate leaves him without much choice, were it not for the long, long arm of the law, yawn, yawn. I should have suspected something amiss after the hero rapes his best friend, a butch lesbian, and she forthwith disappears; what do you know, she reemerges much later, converted by her heterosexual encounter and therefore happily married to a poor unsuspecting atmosphere person.

11011Meanwhile a few instances of the early part’s humor, coupled with some really fierce action sequences, manage to pull the reluctant viewer through; the mass audience will of course be more forgiving, so I guess I ought to be honest about my admiration of how perceptive the filmmakers of Tubusin have been in their appropriation of current commercial preferences in a film genre that would otherwise have been as good as obsolete. In the end, Tubusin will be remembered mainly for just that – revitalizing a film type to conform to the mood of the times. Like Nektar, it will have acquired the box-office profits it intended to make in the first place, although with much less outrage about competence and entertainment appeal. We should all be so glad Armageddon might somehow take longer than tomorrow.

[First published February 17, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Chauvinist’s Nightmare

Kumander Gringa
Directed and written by Mike Relon Makiling

One cultural paradox of our current national existence is the fact that at this point, close to the second anniversary of the February 1986 revolution, our favorite mass medium still has to yield an unqualified triumph in political discourse. Once in a while, or sometimes too often, the movie industry would come up with an alleged true-to-life depiction of a still-living and militaristically significant political personality. The samples so far have proved to be viable for box-office business, but understandably self-serving for their respective subjects; in short, bad for the spirit in the long run. I hope this sufficies to demonstrate the minimum of cynicism in my appreciation of Kumander Gringa as our most successful post-revolution political movie so far. True-la-la, as the lead character (or more accurately one of two) would say: the item, like its subject matter, is far cleverer than what it would have us believe.

Roderick Paulate as the triumphant gay doppelgänger in Kumander Gringa.

11011To begin with, Kumander Gringa arrives on the (high) heels of Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay, which features not only the same director, Mike Relon Makiling, and performer, Roderick Paulate, but also the same comic premise – that of two characters identical in physical appearance but worlds (well, sexes actually) apart in orientation. Notice the twin defensive measures resorted to here, in terms of intention: not only is the undertaking a comedy, it also features the least offensive of Pinoy stock comic characters. And just in case this still couldn’t serve to appease the moralists in our midst, it further halves the lead character in two, the better to drive home the contrast between sexual differences, playing as it does the comic gay against his straight and serious counterpart.

11011But where Ako si Kiko was content to exploit this condition for strictly commercial comedic ends, Kumander Gringa pursues a far more ambitious and ultimately more appreciable, if not actually radical, course. Where the aforementioned biopictures were content to simplify political arguments by reformulating the left-vs.-right conflict into a center-vs.-extreme argument, Kumander Gringa provides sex-based embodiments for each side of the debate. Instead of the good-guy peace-lover caught between the bad-guy war-freaks on both sides of the political fence, we’ve got the gay lead straddling the contradictions between the more realizable concepts of civism and militarism, as represented by traditionally defined women on the one hand and similarly self-imposed men on the other. For the first time in any major local movie, both sides are made to succumb to the camp aspects of the gay option.[1]

11011The limitation of this sort of approach should be obvious to any perceptive social observer. It’s still too schematic to allow for innovation within specific sexual orientations, whether conventional or queer. Where our current biopictures attempt one over run-of-the-mill action movies by imbuing the psychologically motivated protagonists with political significations, the likes of Kumander Gringa in turn transform these political valuations into sexual differences. The approach is actually more analytical than dramatic, and in the final reckoning all these titles share the common property of editorializing in the wrong medium. They strive for the attention-getting appurtenance of thematic novelty without having fine-tuned (and as a consequence they cover up) the essential mechanisms of character and plot development. Using rhetoric metaphor, the machine looks new and therefore potentially workable, but it could never run itself into the long-term required for classical stature.

11011That would of course be tantamount to expecting Dostoyevskian rewards from a Mills & Boon paperback, and in fact I’d go as far as conceding that a Mad magazine feature would be closer to the nature of Kumander Gringa. But the mere fact that the discussion could initiate this level of polemics indicates that Mike Relon Makiling and Roderick Paulate, and by association contemporary Philippine motion-picture comedy, might be going somewhere. Kumander Gringa will also offer some slight film-educational, or more appropriately performing-arts, insights, particularly on the cruciality of the comic performer’s contribution. Again this carries on where Ako si Kiko, Ako si Kikay had left off, this time with the lesson more pronounced. What I mean is that, compared with most of Roderick Paulate’s previous gay-persona outings, Kumander Gringa to begin with has dangerously weak histrionic support: no Nida Blanca, Tessie Tomas, Nova Villa, not even a Maricel Soriano in close range, just a bunch of well-meaning and congenial talents eager to do their best but whose capabilities definitely fall outside the lead star’s caliber.

Roderick Paulate as a gay military recruit forced to act as a deep-penetration agent impersonating a macho rebel leader in Mike Relon Makiling’s Kumander Gringa (1987).

11011The risk Makiling took in response to this limitation has paid off in most parts, of which the financial aspect isn’t yet the least. In Kumander Gringa Paulate comes into his own in a definitive manner, proving for all practical purposes that he’s the prime comedian of the day, fully capable and confident in getting away with even the worst conventions his specialized kind of craft can proffer. Shrewdly, as it turned out, Makiling built the movie’s highlights on scenes intended to be carried by one, the other, or both of Paulate’s characters, and in fact allowed his star the bravura opportunity of creating a character-within-a-character, with the gay lead barely though riotously managing to impersonate his macho counterpart.

11011But instead of leaving Paulate to assume the burden of taking the movie to climax in this one-upmanship manner, Makiling eased the project itself onto parodic territory. I wonder how aware the filmmakers were of how close to radical the movie’s climax was, wherein the gay survivor delivers the lines and actions so far reserved for our most revered male movie personae. The incongruity is downright outrageous, but no one who has ever been moved, as I’d sometimes been, with all those mythologizing endings in our action movies will fail to feel that almost-reflexive swell of emotion. On the other hand, if everything were deliberately done, at least as much as would be enough to hold up under this sort of scrutiny, then the movie couldn’t have been as casual, as disarming even, as it turned out to be.

11011Then again on further thought the literal notion of disarmament is made a vital part of Kumander Gringa’s denouement. I guess clever’s the word, and I mean it as a compliment, true-la-la, but somehow I couldn’t help suspecting that there might be more where this came from.

[First published January 13, 1988, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] One of the films made in the wake of the groundbreaking success of Mar S. Torres’s 1954 Dolphy starrer, Jack en Jill, was Tony Cayado’s 1962 Kaming mga Talyada, where seven effeminate brothers are transformed into masculine heterosexuals via army training coupled with the endangerment of their potential objects of desire; the very last shot, however, depicts their hyper-masculine commanding officer as having been “infected” with the effeminacy that he had sought so desperately to eliminate in his charges, as he follows the now-normativized couples with a distinctly waddling gait. That it took a quarter of a century before this (for want of a better term) condition could be acknowledged as vital enough to induce its proponent to undertake heroic action and transform an entire army camp into happy campers may be read in two ways: as merely a reaction to the recent spate of (again pun incidental) straight-faced people-power heroicizing biofilms; or, on a broader scale, as an expression of relief that the masculinist nightmare of martial rule has finally been dispelled.

11011A further development must also be brought up here: the final doppelgänger roles essayed by Roderick Paulate was in Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Bala at Lipistik in 1994. This takes a step back from political discourse and focuses on the several comic predicaments that may be the stock-in-trade of the action film set-up, notably the abduction of the gay twin after being mistaken for his long-lost toxic-masculine gangster brother. Where it compensates is in the crucial aspect absent in the Makiling films: the beauty-parlor proprietor is partnered with a gay-for-pay stud, who proves chivalrous enough in upholding his sugar parent’s social respectability, despite the standard resolution where he has to settle for the best biological female who comes his way and require his same-sex partner to acknowledge the arrangement.

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O’Hara Strikes Again

Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak
Directed by Mario O’Hara
Written by Mario O’Hara and Frank Rivera

Mario O’Hara’s problem also happens to redound to the advantage of the sensible viewer. Either his films are worth sitting through from the beginning, or they warn you when a walkout is in order right from the start. Like his contemporaries when they were at or approaching their peak, O’Hara refuses to create any middle ground. Give any of his latest titles the benefit of a quarter hour or so, and you get assured that your money will be well-spent, or else you’re given the option of refusing a nonsensical product.

11011He also seems to have found the ideal level of balance between working on a moderate budget yet making the most out of his own storytelling and his performers’ histrionic potentials. Of particular interest over the years are his collaborations with Nora Aunor, and since his resumption of a directorial career during the 1980s, his batting average of roughly one well-made movie annually during the past four years places him on a par with no other local director except Peque Gallaga. For belligerence’s sake, I suppose one could list down the latter’s Virgin Forest and Scorpio Nights (both 1985), Unfaithful Wife (1986), and Once Upon a Time (1987), and on the other hand name Condemned and Bulaklak sa City Jail (both 1984), Bagong Hari (1986), and add Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak as O’Hara’s 1987 entry. Funny, as a final sidelight, how one happens to be identified with the art-for-art’s sake camp, while the other’s associated with the social-realism group – reflecting the earlier dichotomization between the public personae of Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka.

11011Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak isn’t exactly a movie one should rave about indiscriminately – let’s reserve that reaction for the first title that recalls the glory days of the early eighties. What Tatlong Ina does is provide a conventional good time (an irony for a film whose main characters are illegitimate kids, sex workers, and gangsters) – and it sure reflects tellingly on the state of the industry when a movie without any major ambition turns out to be in many ways the year’s best so far. The strange thing about Tatlong Ina, coming as it does from a filmmaker with a presumably progressive political orientation, is the property it shares with O’Hara’s other recent good films: happy endings. (Of instructive socio-psychological value would be a comparison between these and Gallaga’s serious efforts, which in contrast, except for Once Upon a Time, present tragic resolutions.) Although suffused with film noir stylizations, especially in an overabundance of shadows and equally shady characters, O’Hara films are entertaining to a degree that would definitely appall dogmatic proponents of social realism.

11011Never has his strategy become more obvious than in Tatlong Ina, where the happy ending finally ties in most satisfyingly with all the preceding developments. For all its realist imagery and subject matter, the movie is actually a proletariat’s fantasy – a wide-eyed daydream on how personal virtues operating within the proper social circumstances might just suffice in surmounting classic class conflicts. As further proof of Tatlong Ina’s political sophistication – or cleverness, depending upon your preference for the conventional – the proletarian heroes encounter opposition from not only the orthodox villains, the bourgeoisie, but also the so-called bad elements from whom they (the heroes) may initially be indistinguishable. The unlikely team of golden-hearted prostitutes and noble-minded bums subdue kid-snatchers and snobbish aristocrats through the use of force and charm respectively, with sexual attraction for each other and sympathy for a fallen comrade’s love child as motivating force.

11011The abstraction does sound ridiculous, and isn’t helped any by a series of coincidences that help propel the major characters toward ultimate victory. Only an artist’s strong convictions in the face of all this silliness could create a semblance of integrity through technical consistency. Which, luckily, O’Hara provides, by way of skills rooted in theater and well-hewn in cinema.

11011It wouldn’t be too pedantic then to maintain that Tatlong Ina, as typical of O’Hara at his best, is an effective accumulation of finely observed and captured incidents with above-average performances providing the crucial credibility factor. His storyteller’s sense of proportion fails him this time in only two instances, both of them admittedly minor in relation to the movie’s overall accomplishment. One is the use of the child as commentator, when her narrative functions at the start would have sufficed. Of course the expansion of the precocious Matet’s role fits in with her lead-star status, which in turn has served as the movie’s main come-on; but the problem of explaining real time – when, where, and why is she telling the story of her “mothers’” uphill struggles? – eventually emerges, and is never given even a perfunctory explanation. Secondly, and more seriously for the film’s narrative purposes, the story suddenly permutes into the standard (and, by now, quite kinky) Nora Aunor requisite of pairing off a mousy character with an extremely improbable mestizo-type; the fact that the Adonis in Tatlong Ina also happens to come from old-rich stock practically promises to be the movie’s undoing.

Nora Aunor, positioned between her usual fair-skinned male partner (Miguel Rodriguez) and her equally fair adoptive daughter (Matet de Leon) in Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Ina, Isang Anak (1987).

11011To a certain extent this particular instance of indulgence is mitigated by O’Hara’s bravura staging of the most original wedding sequence since such endings recently became de rigueur once more in commercial romantic outings. To be sure, the mise-en-scène appears in this case to be simple enough; it is the working out of the various class reactions, specifically the reverse snobbery of the about-to-be-redeemed ex-prostitutes, that ensures that this wedding scene’s reliance less on pomp than on circumstance will make acceptable its appendage to the movie. The aforementioned reservations aside, Tatlong Ina can stake a short-term claim on memory, if only for its admirable exposition on the underworld milieu, comparable to the same director’s prison portion in his other Nora Aunor movie, Bulaklak sa City Jail. Tatlong Ina’s is more loosely structured, but then it covers a whole lot more territory, and as explained earlier, its upbeat ending fits the entire schema less awkwardly than does the earlier work. If this presages a cautious breaking away from the predictable and admittedly tiresome traditions of social relevance in moviemaking, then O’Hara’s next moves certainly merit closer attention.

[First published September 2, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Mellow Drama

Paano Kung Wala Ka Na
Directed by Mel Chionglo
Written by Ricardo Lee

Reviewing early this year a movie titled Kung Aagawin Mo ang Lahat sa Akin, I recall having given the much-maligned genre of melodrama more potential than most critics were willing to concede. Just to give you an idea of how ivory-tower snobbish mainstream film observation can get, what I’d written was tantamount to saying that melodrama could achieve its intention to entertain without being downright insulting. Maybe it was because the film under discussion then happened to have flowed out of the run-of-the-mill melodrama-maker, which in these shores can only be equated with a singular production outfit: Viva Films. Well, I had some quibbles then about the title being reviewed, and the only constant reaction I’ve had to Viva melodramas hadn’t differed before and hasn’t differed since. Somehow, somewhere, something just doesn’t work out, usually in terms of story development, internal logic, or characterization – or what the academically inclined would call the classical values in narrative craft.

11011This time we’ve just had another output that contains all the elements of the melodrama we’ve come to be suspicious, if not intolerant, about. Happily, for the purposes of my thesis, the film works in several crucial areas, except maybe for the fact that it wasn’t produced by the company I was hoping would be able to perfect the form. Paano Kung Wala Ka Na has a beginning and ending that are unmistakably happy, unless you’re one of the few misanthropes around who denies the celebratory tone commonly associated with partying. All the main characters are unmitigatedly and unforgivably rich, and by that token could pass for being beautiful; the fact that they are physically so increases their distance from us lesser mortals.

11011They enjoy the luxury of playing at love, though not as intricately as the old French romantic comedies could depict it, but then who among our audiences have been exposed to this tradition, much less understand French? When these characters cry their hearts out, which at the most occurs roughly every other scene, only the heartless can resist agreeing that such perfect specimens don’t deserve such cruelties of fate. Even the hoariest convention in contemporary romantic works – the Lovers’ Interlude, a meaningless montage of a young couple having their fill of life (to the tune of the movie’s theme, for which reason blame MTV) – can be considered herein a mere irritant, a distraction if you will, justifiable only in the sense that the film’s plot complexities could use some breathing space. The best part of all, the one aspect which local melodrama, for some strange reason, finds difficulty in presenting, is the fact that all the characters are given equal time – not in the literal sense, but according to a great classicist’s dictum that everyone, most especially a character in a well-told story, has her reasons for acting (in the dramatic, not the histrionic sense) the way she does.

11011In Paano Kung Wala Ka Na this realization is pursued through a clever ploy. In the guise of allowing the marital problems of elderly couples to reflect on their young, the movie proceeds to develop the oldies’ stories into a finely woven tapestry held taut by a commanding sense of irony. The fact that the young ones’ love triangle inadvertently reverts to a disconcerting triteness is one way in which truly creative film artists could subvert conventions while seeming to indulge in them. In this sense Paano Kung Wala Ka Na could still be considered at best a transitory milestone, whose final goal would be a product that manages to discuss the problems of the elderly according to updated notions of morality, without having to resort to young stars seemingly being taken seriously for understandable (though not always acceptable) box-office reasons. More important, it points the way for current state-of-the-craft melodrama-making: that twists and reversals associable with the genre are best employed in the service of humane characterization rather than the plot complications that typify current approaches. I’m sure someday someone will castigate Paano for making all melodrama characters predictably likeable, but for the moment such a device is innovative enough, and therefore desirable in itself.

Snooky Serna and Miguel Rodriguez as young lovers whose elders play out a more complex roundelay of relationships in Mel Chionglo’s Paano Kung Wala Ka Na (1987).

11011The film’s director-writer team-up (Mel Chionglo and Ricardo Lee respectively) has had some even more commendable output before, including Playgirl and Bomba Arienda, plus what I consider one of the most underrated movies of the current decade, Sinner or Saint. What an assuring development to realize that their decision to play around with current conventions of commercialism has provided them with invaluable skills and insights into that kind of challenge, and some sensible entertainment for the viewing public as well.

[First published October 14, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Campout

Natutulog Pa ang Diyos
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Orlando Nadres

Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas?
Directed by Emmanuel H. Borlaza
Written by Orlando Nadres

Sa Puso Ko Hahalik ang Mundo
Directed and written by Artemio Marquez

The trouble with prevalent local film criticism is that either it isn’t critical or it is. Either it’s an advertising package, with a usually minimal veneer of subtlety, or it’s the diametrical opposite – a pronouncement of definitive proportions utilizing criteria culled from the dwindling groves of academe. Hence the nature of incentives available to practitioners is encompassed on the one hand by publicity machineries of various makes and capabilities, and on the other hand by awards and ratings bodies, each designed to counter the other side: the academy award(s) for the studio system, the religious award for (presumably) the unscrupulous sector, the critics’ award for the movie press, and the movie press award for what seems to be the critics’ group. Currently the controversies in this aspect seem to center on the propriety of the existence of rivalries. Certainly one or the other so-named academy award group would rather be the only one of its kind, and even having the movie writers’ group divided between the critics and the, well, non-critics correctly implies one set of trophies too many.[1]

11011Lost in the lollapalooza is the reality that film output is actually more variegated than what the apologies of this state of affairs would have us believe. Never mind the alternatives – those products finished in non-commercial formats for usually non-commercial, or at least non-mainstream, ends. What about the majority – the film products that fall in between by refusing to pander outright to either side of the industry conflict? What we usually take notice of are the extreme instances that justify the polarizations within: the box-office success that proves the necessity of publicity, the artistic triumph that provides another excuse for the annual award-giving ritual, and rarer still, the popular and critically acclaimed product that reconciles both sides for the moment, until the next non-artistic top-grosser or artistic box-office flop comes along.

11011Few movies, Filipino or otherwise, are unqualified masterstrokes either way, and so for the most part (or so I believe) regular moviegoers actually attend to the national pastime more mindful of one another’s responses rather than what people in media have to say. Which is just as well. It would be the height of absurdity to subject movies like Natutulog Pa ang Diyos, Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas?, and Sa Puso Ko Hahalik ang Mundo to the declaration of the box-office winner, since the mere fact of doing good financially is already a reward in itself; on the other hand, it would also be the height of cruelty to impose criteria of artistry on efforts that may have set out to accomplish something more than just returns on investments, but definitely not “art.” Maybe one could approach them then from the perspective of entertainment? This would admittedly be difficult, premised as it is on pertinent cultural assumptions and connoting a good deal of subjectivity in the process. The easier option is to behave, instead of think, like a typical Filipino moviegoer, but then the responsibility of rendering some insights, however tentative, gets forsaken.

11011So here goes. Natutulog Pa ang Diyos is surprisingly effective, if you’ve been following Lino Brocka’s progression. Where he used to concentrate mainly on surfaces, testing a technical or technological approach or two while remaining faithful to a predetermined text, here he seems more relaxed about merely being competent and allowing himself or his actors some latitude in on-the-set explorations, and possibly even revisions. (The same atmosphere informed, to more effective results, Mike de Leon’s last commercial-format movie.) Brocka’s attempts are highly uneven, but when they work, they do so in unexpected ways, notably the clowning of Gina Pareño in the suspenseful expository portions and the rejection of reconciliation (and thus predictable sainthood) by the Lorna Tolentino character in the end.

11011Only time can tell how far Brocka can push this method (and look, no caps!); although widely practiced among local directors, so far only one, Ishmael Bernal, could exploit it and still retain some measure of integrity. Emmanuel H. Borlaza, for his part, has used it to better advantage in the past. Paano Tatakasan ang Bukas? evinces no perceptible amount of conviction whatsoever, save for the regionalist humor of Chanda Romero; the tandem between director and actress recalls their glory days in regional (Cebuano-language) cinema, although Paano Tatakasan may be forward-looking in its own way too. About midway through the story the lead character starts spouting evangelical propaganda, and the others straightaway follow suit. The instance demonstrates the supreme incompatibility of a conservative movement seeking legitimacy via a still-radical medium of expression; it upholds one’s faith in film just as it exposes the hypocrisy of moralists, who just as easily would have us reject the medium for its alleged immoral influences.

11011The upshot then of this triple-fare viewing is that Sa Puso Ko Hahalik and Mundo may prove to be the least offensive, and therefore the most preferable, of the three. Well, nuts to the naïve. Sa Puso Ko is the most effective precisely because it dares to offend the most, and manages to sustain this mode of presentation, sometimes referred to as camp, to an admirably intolerable degree. Yet there is a value in Sa Puso Ko more felt than visualized. Where previous local efforts in modern-day camp, notably by the likes of Joey Gosiengfiao, proved too calculated (and therefore self-defeating), Sa Puso Ko contains the same deadly sincerity that made the same director’s previous outing, The Untold Story of Melanie Marquez, so difficult to dismiss in the face of its wholly dismissible material.

11011Sa Puso Ko in fact does one better by having not one but three lead characters delineating impossibly lachrymose tales within the all-too-ludicrous contexts of virginity, proletarian dignity, and filial piety. This plus the added advantage of fictional premises have provided Artemio Marquez with what may arguably be his mortal best, Brocka and Borlaza notwithstanding. And so this is what one sometimes gets for giving a well-intentioned film practitioner a well-deserved break. No mind-blowing mergence of art and craft, or sheer commercialist actuations. Just a curiously convoluted and intellectually refracted achievement of sorts. The mark of a master lies in how easy to make the whole thing seems to be, until you try to figure out a personal project along the same lines. You could just wind up smiling.

[First published November 9, 1988, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] When this article was written, the only available genuine (guild-formed) academy group was the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP), whose name was shared by the oldest continuous award-giving body, the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences or FAMAS – which in turn actually comprised older movie press members; the younger press practitioners formed the Philippine Movie Press Club (PMPC) with their own set of prizes, called Star Awards; the specialized type of movie press was the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (or Filipino film reviewers circle), which was formed in response to the increasingly detectable influence-peddling in the FAMAS. Since then, the FAP has had a splinter group, as did the PMPC, each of which also hands out awards. The MPP, which is actually dominated by academics, generated two other types of award-givers: a teachers group, and another academe-based group calling themselves the Young Critics Circle. (Personal disclosure: along with another member, Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., I was involved with the MPP and the YCC, as well as with a third critics group called Kritika.)

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After the Revolution

Orapronobis
Directed by Lino Brocka
Written by Jose F. Lacaba

The inveterate optimist’s reward for enduring an inordinately long dry spell in Philippine cinema, after a commendable inundation that should never have ended (but did anyway), has arrived in the form of, well, a Filipino film that’s alien-produced, concerning a local subject that’s universally topical, and with short-term consequences that should be urgently overridden in the light of significant long-term implications. Orapronobis, Lino Brocka’s latest cause célèbre, stands to be the most significant closing film of an impressive decade in the history of Philippine cinema – and although a handful of other films (Brocka’s own included) may have equal if not greater artistic value, Orapronobis holds the additional distinction of being the first arguably superlative Filipino movie since the February 1986 revolution.

Gina Alajar as an abducted activist who avenges the death of her son in Lino Brocka’s Orapronobis (1989).

11011It also arrives, like those twin big-city masterpieces – Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night and Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag – in a swirl of controversies complicated no end by the project’s internationality this time around. No doubt discourses on the director’s differences with his foreign financiers and own government, plus the movie’s inherent capability of provoking debates on ideological and public-relations policy issues, contain the potential to continue beyond the resolutions of whatever problems can be formulated, for whatever motives possible. This is the main reason why Orapronobis is being discussed by practically every major opinionist who happens to have an outlet for publication or broadcast. And the determination of the movie’s ultimate worth being buried in the avalanche of articulate, well-meaning, but conflicting points set loose by political perturbations remains, as lawyers love to put it, a clear and present danger.

11011Orapronobis would probably be a fitting marker for the end of its director’s second decade in his profession – or, for that matter, the beginning of his third. Like any other Filipino filmmaker gifted with vision and intelligence, Brocka would be the last to admit that his career has been a tranquil and restful one. To make matters worse (for himself, that is), he happened to assume the extra burden of pioneering for Philippine cinema in foreign shores. It would be only logical to conclude three things, each proceeding from the other: that Brocka’s artistry, intersected as it had been at about the midpoint of his career so far by international attention, would exhibit permutations unique to his case; that these would be more difficult to analyze than similar case studies of local directors, since internationalized interactions presumably induce a system of dialectics which may be occasionally complementary with, but which may also at other times be tangential or opposed to, that of local dynamics; and finally, it would take even the most sincere and driven director (and Brocka is nothing if not one) quite a time, given these constraints, before he can come up with a definitive body of work.

11011Orapronobis is proof positive of the last conclusion. Prior to this, the only truly major movies Brocka ever made were Maynila and Miguelito: Batang Rebelde; naturally, the course of his international impaction did not always conform to the pattern formed by these three titles. If anything, Brocka became better – and unfairly, if I may say so – known for efforts that were minor to a fault, minimalist in style, and badly balanced by what could only be explained as an overeager willingness to please an ill-advised combination of foreign admirers and the local masses, neglecting the crucial element of local observers (including the community of artists Brocka belongs to). Ultimately the director will be known as more than just another Third-World filmmaker. With the three aforementioned titles, a case can be made for his versatility in three disparate and difficult film approaches: documentary realism in Maynila, milieu formation in Miguelito, and advocatory moviemaking in Orapronobis. Each milestone holds its own significance with respect to Brocka’s career development. Maynila was a stunning coup d’essai, coming as it did without any antecedent among any of the major talents (apart from Brocka, scriptwriter Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., cinematographer Mike de Leon, and lead performer Rafael Roco Jr.) associated with it; Miguelito displayed the range and extent of Brocka’s discipline in being able to pick up from what he had left off more than a decade earlier, improving on a better-forgotten first attempt in Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang; Orapronobis, for its part, has drawn directly from a number of impassioned works but responded to the need to depart from a scantiness of details and devices on the one hand and a surfeit of bathos on the other.

11011Of particular interest in this last instance is Bayan Ko (Kapit sa Patalim), the previous collaboration between Brocka and Orapronobis’s writer Jose F. Lacaba. Released locally the same year as Miguelito, Bayan Ko managed to ride a crest of sentiment swollen by the anti-dictatorship movement (which had resulted in the temporary interdiction of the movie and incarceration of its director), sufficient to surpass in critical attention not just its superior contemporary but also a number of other better works. Ironically the 1986 revolution, in negating Bayan Ko’s source of suffering, did the same to its artistic raison d’être, in effect allowing its basic thematic weakness of justifying both proletarian nobility and lumpenist imperatives in the same character to now become a commanding concern. Such historical reversals may soon similarly obtain in the case of Orapronobis, but in the opposite direction. Reviled, at least in certain quarters, where Bayan Ko was admired, the current opus will definitely be capable of prevailing on its own merits as film – that is, if it manages to survive what is turning out to be typical establishment resistance to its divulgence of disillusionment and dissent.

11011The achievement is all the more noteworthy when one considers that Bayan Ko essentially constituted a throwback to Maynila, in the sense that the intention was for the viewer’s perception of reality to be transformed after the viewing experience; no plastic manipulations were imposed on reality as raw material, and at one point the action was in fact transposed to an ongoing protest march, rather than, as in Maynila, the march being staged for more effective filmic exploitation. Comparatively, Orapronobis consigns documentary events onscreen to the onslaught of a narrative which has drawn voraciously from known facts – hence sandwiching the presentation between history, on the one hand, and realistic imagery, on the other. The method would be daring for those who happen to share the movie’s conclusions, but even those who don’t will have to admit that cleverness of a high order is involved herein: the post-experiential transformation of reality may or may not take place, depending upon one’s ideological position, but in the meantime an alteration has already been accomplished, facilitated by the act of viewing itself, and the return to a stance of disagreement would require a strong (and possibly disturbing) triumph of the will.

11011The matter becomes clearer when one reduces Orapronobis to its most basic level of argumentation. All possible worst-scenario charges against the existing political dispensation are stacked up front, crowding out in the end any possible apology (as represented by the lead character’s initial frame of mind) for even the minutest offense. There is nothing really dramatic about this sort of attitude: in fact the only motivation, if we may extend our definition, allowed the main antagonist is that he suffers from a psychosis stemming from a lethal combination of colonialism, religiosity, and machismo. Yet in a schematic way the movie manages to convey a cautionary world-view that surpasses even the commonplace businesses that it purports to treat. If domestic relationships are regarded, as well they may be in Philippine culture, as basis for an ideal, then the movie’s protagonists can be seen to function in a context not far removed from the potential for abusiveness and callousness that their enemies have gone over into. The lead’s underground contact turns out to be a hit man who targets a policeman shown as having a family of his own (cf. the more exploitative treatment of this recent urban-guerrilla strategy in the previous Brocka international release, Macho Dancer); more saliently, the lead himself ultimately abandons his wife and newborn child to rejoin the underground movement, more in retaliation for the death of his illegitimate family than from any need for personal security.

11011The performances constitute a vital aspect in delineating this state of affairs. The legal wife’s predicament works only in retrospect mainly because Dina Bonnevie, despite a strong presence, loses out to the skills of Gina Alajar, who may originally have been intended as a foil, an impetus to the male lead’s change of heart, but actually succeeds in becoming a dominating figure in the movie through the sheer resplendency of her portrayal. Phillip Salvador is for once given again the opportunity to work with a fully rounded character, this time smoothing out the rough edges observable in Jaguar (his first film and the first Brocka-Lacaba collaboration, with co-writer Ricardo Lee). Jaguar though would be more instructive than coincidental this time around: here the antagonist, unlike that of Bembol Roco in Orapronobis, is treated with enough sympathy to create an involving conflict between him and the title character.

11011Hence the means by which Orapronobis elicits audience alertness is not so much representational as technical. It would be valid, though somewhat pedantic, to say that montage is actually the main actor in the movie – the engrossing alternation between romanticism and paranoia, the intricate correlation between imagery and anxiety, and finally the successful transmutation of symbols of personal comfort (religion, politics, even escapist cinema) into objects of social menace. When an editor – actually three of them in the opening credits – doesn’t hesitate to use jump cuts to compress time, then she knows and appreciates her film language; but when she uses them to facilitate transitions and make narrative commentaries in the process (as in the use of the religious-icon insert in the final rape scene), then she has progressed beyond film language to imaginative storytelling. Mature editorial judgments resist the usual confinements of style and genre; although essentially a political thriller, with several shots timed at split-seconds, Orapronobis’s climax comprises a series of prolonged takes, the longest of which consists of an excruciating yet exhilarating slow zoom into the lead character rocking his dead son in church.[1]

11011It may be said, on the basis of Orapronobis, that an aspect of Brocka’s artistic persona may have died along with his long-time cinematographer Conrado Baltazar. Gone are the cavernous compositions and light-and-shadow interplay that used to suggest more than what the script was capable of conveying. This is not to say, however, that Brocka has merely returned to the functionalism of his early, pre-Tinimbang Ka movies. What the latest work suggests is that the director has become more confident with the tools of his medium and may now pay more attention to how these can be made to serve the purposes of straightforward storytelling – not in the manner of recreating history in terms of imagery or narratory momentum, but through the realization of a vision whose relationship with actualities becomes secondary to its awareness of and approach to film. All told, Orapronobis bodes both ways for Philippine cinema in the next decade – or what we should all hope to be another Golden Age, if not a continuation of the previous one. It confirms the increasing technical sophistication of Filipino filmmakers even as it dares to challenge and reverse popular notions of existing reality. What ought to be anticipated is the reflexive backlash against such an appropriation of what has long been the jurisdiction of social institutions, rather than entertainment industries: the privilege to uphold or change values or attitudes. No doubt experience has proved that artists do it better, and less painfully besides, but then it’s the other types who maintain positions of influence in the end.

11011As for the particular artist behind Orapronobis, the time may well be near when a Brocka film could be appreciated fully on its own, rather than as part of an indispensable body of work, no matter how impressively sustained the individual entries may be. In this regard a long-time lesson from that part of the world where he has been introduced to the global film community could serve as appropriate starting point. Not long before Lino Brocka began making films, the French managed to prove, first in theory and then in New-Wave practice, that several styles may be successfully combined in singular works, which in turn would be limited only by their filmmakers’ command of the styles being used. When the next major Brocka movie would be putting to use in one summarist masterpiece his accumulation of skills through the years, instead of the pursuit of too-distinctive modes of expression and content, might just be one of the more welcome developments in the near future of Philippine cinema.

[First published January 10, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] For some reason one non-Filipino scholar, in writing about Orapronobis, seized on these passages in a Pauline Kael-style demolition of responses by Philippine commentators, minus Kael’s thoroughness (he held up an exception) and expert grasp of filmmaking processes. He described the insight as “keen” and “very astute,” then proceeded to fault the use of “highly aestheticizing language…. While David’s sharp critical comments stand, they are in danger of being lost in the precious supplications of the aesthete” (Beller 159) – a definite consequence if one were to isolate the paragraph from the rest of the review, duh.

11011Elsewhere the author describes Orapronobis and Manila by Night as instances of “socialist realism” (145 & 159 resp.), an even more baffling conclusion, since neither presidential regime under which these were produced (Ferdinand Marcos’s and Corazon Aquino’s resp.) was socialist in name or in practice; nor were the directors hard-line members of the Communist Party of the Philippines when the films were made. It would be reasonable to speculate that both Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal would hesitate (to say the least) in appreciating actual samples of socialist-realist cinema – a creature far removed from the worthier though also dated practice of social realism – and adopting these as worthy models, outside of campy comedic traditions. See Jonathan Beller, Acquiring Eyes: Philippine Visuality, Nationalist Struggle, and the World-Media System (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2006).

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Book Texts – Autobio

MOVING PICTURE: WORLD’S SHORTEST PREQUEL

Floodwaters in certain parts of Sampaloc district would rise chest-high by grade-schooler’s proportions as recently as during the late 1960s, and my brothers and I would wallow through invisible potholes and visible sewage just to be able to get home in time to avoid alerting the household to our absence. It didn’t seem as depressing as it sounds, because soon as we got home we’d drop paper boats from the window sill and marvel at how automobile spillage would form rainbow-colored patterns amid the raindrops and waves. How to convey the values and dimensions of this primal aesthetic experience, beauty in detritus, has been the greater challenge of my work as film critic and teacher. Often my impatience has engendered a style that’s reflective of both aspects of such a childhood impression – didactic, I think, but with an incongruous informality. Formal college-level training dwelled on the incompatibility of the combination, and so my early work tended to assume the tone of Moses mandating monotheism on Mount Sinai, handing down revelations whose densities abhorred loose or open ends.

11011The further from academe I grew, the less self-conscious my notions of style became; at the same time I could not help but uphold the same standards for the works I selected for evaluation. With the inevitable maturation of my personal faculties, I somehow approached an ideal (rarely achieved, of course) of readability amid discourse complicated even for myself. Necessarily this involved periods of selectivity as well as rest and consolidation, but methinks the consequences are different for critics who rely on exigencies of artistic production, rather than artists who depend on critical evaluation; for in the final analysis, the artist could assume critical functions, at the very least for herself, while the critic can never really work in a vacuum, even (or perhaps especially) when working on theoretical issues.

11011I do badly regret not having come of age during the start of my self-proclaimed second Golden Age of Philippine cinema during the mid-seventies, although I suspect that more effective groundwork had been accomplished during the more turbulent pre-martial law years. As a college-fresh neophyte who honed my fangs on political and economic animadversions, I could draw from the likes of, say, Aliw and Aguila, but Manila by Night and Kakabakaba Ka Ba? from the same period seemed too intricate to unravel and too deep to reach then. I found sufficient leeway to try various approaches thereafter, but at the expense of otherwise praiseworthy attempts in Angela Markado and Batch ’81. And just when I decided to return to school, for which I had to hold down a job – both as full-time preoccupations, out came a full and consistent flowering of films, unaware even that late of the searing effect of the then-forthcoming February 1986 people-power uprising.

11011Only afterward could I graduate from chronicler to confident commentator, with the rather desperate optimism that, like what happened after the early post-martial rule dry spell, another Golden Age would not be long in following. Invariably my appreciation of paper boats and grease rainbows made the excursion through Manila’s bloodstreams worth the plunge. Along the way I could get my fill of doing retrospective commentaries, but then the best part consisted of divining what could come next and occasionally seeing it fulfilled in some form or other.

Alternative author’s pic for The National Pastime, taken by National Midweek official photographer Gil Nartea.

11011My list of great film-writers all have some profound contradictions crisscrossing their works, and this, more than anything else, makes reading them doubly difficult. Given the luxury of a lifetime, I’m sure I’ll be developing a few swivels and turnabouts here and there; already I know which of my past output, aside from the ones I’ve already mentioned, I could renounce in the name of personal progress, but meantime I did write them once, and became interested enough to stand by them even through the trauma of publication. So they appear as they do now, contextualized only by their respective dates of issue, in order to maybe show how far I’ve come (or gone), and perhaps qualify the shortcomings of the worthier items.

11011There’ll be an entire future to face, marked in the meantime by the impending close of the current century. Film, as I’d written elsewhere, will undergo further and radical transformations in terms of technology and approach, and what we consider Third-World practice is on an ascendency. There won’t be just floodwaters to cross, there’ll be entire oceans to swim, and though by then I might be sounding different, difficult even, I guess we’ll all be lucky, though we’ve long deserved it, to be where it’s at come the time.

[First published October 3, 1990 in National Midweek]

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THE LAST OF LINO

The standard opposition in Philippine film culture between Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal existed mostly in the minds of film observers and practitioners who were invested in the stature of one or the other, despite the fact that both filmmakers expressed fondness for each other and engaged in, at its worst, a friendly rivalry. The differences between them unfortunately infested critical opinion, magnified in malignant proportion when European filmfest agents swooped into town and decided that the politically naïve director who nevertheless boasted of polished surfaces would be preferable to the campy and boisterous sophisticate who had a deeper understanding of and preference for Third-cinema traditions.[1] Although initially less threatening to his global marketers because of his reliance on generic Hollywood models and steadfast opposition to Ferdinand Marcos’s martial-law dictatorship, Brocka inevitably outgrew his mid-career orientation and made perceptible stabs at narrative complexity, thematic ambiguities, and spectatorial appeal – qualities that were associated with Bernal, just as Bernal made a disturbing turn into orthodox leftism. That both adventures were cut short before their protagonists realized what ends they would lead to is one of the many tragedies that, in the minds of many of us, confirmed the end of a significant era. This semi-autobiographical piece was originally drafted as the epilogue to my second volume of film articles, Fields of Vision.

My affinity with Lino Brocka became more literal than I could have ever imagined after he had died. My instinctive response was to declare a study of his works as master’s thesis topic, but I eventually had to face the fact that, apart from the formidable resources the attempt would require, this was also my way of evading the reality of the loss his death had engendered. Meanwhile I had requested my librarian mother to clip whatever biographical information was available, and it was she who discovered that Lino’s father’s first wife was the Bicolano Brocka that we were somehow related to. What impressed me was the distance between us – a remoteness that could only be bridged, had he still been alive, by a complex social formality. Strangely, it was such a formality that characterized the few interactions I had with him. The first time we were introduced, I had just published my first (and fortunately last) John Simon-inspired review, which happened to deal with his then-latest release, Angela Markado.[2] I’d been forewarned by accounts, from acquaintances and the media, of his temperamental responses to criticism, but we carried on as if I had commented on something as irrelevant to our concerns as the weather.

11011Maybe he understood my obsession with trying out as many approaches to film writing and analysis as possible; in any case, my encounter with him opened to me the possibility that the artists I was dealing with could be concerned with the same thing, differences in media practice notwithstanding. Having witnessed what Lino and his colleagues, in their pursuit of knowledge through praxis, had to endure from commentators who were more concerned with their own personal criteria of correctness than with the artist’s learning process, I had the dubious benefit of knowing right from the start that I was placing myself in a somewhat similar situation.

11011The interventions of history were of not much help either. The machinators of martial rule were clever – and I grant this as someone who was privileged to work within the Marcos administration – but they necessarily left little room for cultural sophistication, beyond the basic and ultimately frustrating application of guerilla principles. Hence mass media were approached by their practitioners with an understanding reminiscent of First-World appreciation circa the 1950s, when US media institutions were both monopolistic and discomfortingly allied with government. Artistry in the classicist sense constituted the surest acceptable defense for subversive practice, so in general the more mass the medium (and therefore the more subject to establishment interests), the harsher the critique toward it; such a view also conveniently induced a critical attitude toward the government, since this was the entity that exercised control over media.

11011Practice in media was therefore regarded as compromise at best, and nowhere was this principle more in evidence than in film. Competition-oriented awards served to emblemize this essentially watchdog function, providing a much-needed alternative to financial and political incentives. The 1986 people-power uprising, in its dismantling of the structures of cultural patronage in film, similarly obliterated the modes of practice that were utilized to counter the excesses of the dictatorship. The question Who/What is the best artist/product of the season? (effectively akin then to asking who or what best embodied opposition to the dictatorship) has given way to Why should only one winner at a time be proclaimed in so many categories, why these categories in the first place, and why this set of winners at this time?

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11011Using the development of Western critical thought as framework, I realized that entire schools had passed us by, in the meantime that we had to rely on early useful ones. One’s mission could then be facilitated by simply flash-forwarding (or should we say push-processing?) to the present, accepting contemporary theorists’ assertion that past approaches had proved flawed and were thereby generally dismissible. Other people had other ideas – Lino Brocka, for one. Where it would have been easy for him, given his international stature and local clout, to simply assimilate state-of-the-art competence, he preferred to run the gantlet in wooing back the mass audience that had accounted for his early triumphs in the industry. This meant a modification of his film-noir expertise and a whole lot of melodramatizations, so much so that prior to his resumption of foreign-financed production, he was being written off by most critical quarters as no better than the other Marcos-era talents, who were regarded as more decent in their preference for inactivity over crass practice.

11011Lino possibly had as many tragedies as there were who loved him. To my mind, his greatest was expiring right on the verge of what could have been an astounding artistic take-off, judging from the evidence of his last few serious local works: Hahamakin Lahat, Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, Sa Kabila ng Lahat, and the still-unreleased Orapronobis, plus the projects that had to be taken up by others – Huwag Mong Salingin ang Sugat Ko and Lucia and, in play form, Miserere Nobis and Noli Me Tangere; and these were just the ones that had already attained some measure of development – many more of equal or greater ambition were allegedly being considered. At no other time, in terms of his mastery of the medium and understanding of its mass appreciators, was he better qualified to stake a claim as major Filipino artist than when he bowed out. Many of us local critics managed to sharpen our faculties at the expense of Lino’s less-than-able output; but much more was lost to us by his death.

11011His own contribution to my convictions appears to be more lasting. I managed to somehow catch the tail end of formal awareness and appreciation of whatever media one happened to be interested in – film and literature, in my case. This has somehow enabled me to relate with a small and highly select number of local critics who extend their notion of praxis to include artistic production, inform their critical practice with an understanding or at least the pursuit of what constitutes effective expression in the local context, and believe in the importance of historical continuity for our specific purposes. One would think at first that between, say, a believer who comes in straight from the latest cultural theories and someone who exhibits the qualities mentioned above, the distinctions would be too subtle as to be negligible. Recent organizational practice, however, has demonstrated that the differences can be both salient and crucial.

11011In the final analysis, one needs to reckon with the current state of cultural maturity and proceed from there. Artists may be up for annihilation in the West, and well they may be, given the overly extended period of their ascendancy. But to impose the same attitude here, where people still exhibit difficulty in distinguishing true artists from bogus ones and cannot even always count on cultural institutions for assistance in this regard, would be tantamount to misguided zealotry. To go about busting canons is perfectly called for, if the canons have themselves been drawn up with the maximum possible systematization and thoroughness. But with all our available ones so far shot through with methodological imperfections, then the act of assisting in creating better ones first will prove more helpful in refocusing attention on issues of credibility, reliability, and defensibility. The critique of such a listing (of which I hope the ten-best survey appearing in this volume will be the first definitive one for Philippine cinema) will of course be more difficult and complex, but this only means a more advanced and rewarding discourse in the long run.

11011I could not always hope to convey the fun I had in what was in a sense a new adventure every time; I could certainly indicate here though the heavy-heartedness with which I accept that such a mode of practice cannot be sustained forever, at least not while our concrete local condition remains the way it is and has been for as long as I remember. Sometimes I still find it hard to believe that certain foreign practitioners have built careers on the basis of one or a few others of these occasionally all-too-easy attempts at film coverage and analysis, but then even Lino himself realized, sometimes to everyone’s discomfiture, that material existence was never always fair.

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11011What comes after this work will, or at least should, strive to be something as different as this was from the first. It could be more tightly structured and cognizant of recent philosophical issues, or it could be either one or the other or nothing like anything I mentioned. Whether my colleagues in criticism like it or not, my cue has somehow already been set … by among others Lino Brocka, who never allowed anything humanly surmountable to get in the way of what could have been merely fun. What a way to go.

Notes

[1] It should no longer surprise observers from this period that the person being referenced here was Cannes Film Festival publicist and selector Pierre Rissient, who died in May 2018. Wolf Donner and Moritz de Hadeln, directors of the Berlin International Film Festival, were more appreciative of Third-cinema traditions – and therefore supportive of filmmakers like Kidlat Tahimik and Ishmael Bernal – but were far less influential than Rissient. I managed to mention a further so-far undiscussed issue in my monograph Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017): “Brocka, like his serious films, was formal, reserved, and masculine in deportment; Bernal was boisterous, catty, inclined to camp, and effeminate. Although both acknowledged being homosexual, Brocka … went through a phase of being ‘discreet,’ forbidding queer behavior at the Philippine Educational Theater Association and quarreling with journalists who played up his gay inclinations. Whether this implies that homophobia played a factor in the Cannes festival’s gatekeeping is up to scholars of gender to tease out” (99n15).

[2] A problematic aspect of Lino Brocka’s personality, evident in the many interviews he granted and (mostly) compiled in the posthumously published volume Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times (ed. Mario A. Hernando, Manila: Sineng Pangkultura ng Pilipinas, 1993), is that he refused to acknowledge any error that may have arisen in his filmmaking or real-life output. Yet his subsequent works would evince that he had reconsidered those same positions and was striving as best he could to rectify them. In the instance of his films panned by local critics, he would point out how foreign film festivals provided those specific titles with raves and prizes. Local reception to Philippine releases that bypass the process of securing audience patronage in order to garner overseas esteem has shifted considerably since then: filmmakers no longer need to evade censorship, and have been known to disparage Filipino audiences to court the sympathy of foreign commenters and viewers. It would certainly not be meaningless to speculate that Brocka, had he still been around, would be the first to repudiate this state of affairs.

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ORDINARY PEOPLE: MOVIE WORKER

To commemorate its second anniversary issue, National Midweek announced an “Ordinary People” omnibus feature and asked four authors (including me, as well as Rudy Villanueva, Juaniyo Arcellana, and Melanie Manlogon) to detail our ironically non-ordinary experiences in the arena of labor. A rather cringe-inducing tagline, accompanying an inapposite TV studio setting, announced: “As continuity person, his work was to record everything that went on during the shooting. But he also carried camera equipment, made coffee for the star, parried the verbal abuse of irritable crew members. And he was a University of the Philippines graduate.” I loved my work at the magazine so much it didn’t matter. Curiously, the fantasy I expressed toward the end of the article – that of local film (and media) work acquiring a semblance of professionalism in terms of academic preparation – eventually came to pass, not exactly in the way I anticipated, but then such are the vagaries of fate. [Published November 4, 1987, on pp. 15-16.]

Midweek Movie Worker

Confession of the week: I was an ordinary movie person. Actually I still am, were it not for the impression that film commentators hold significant influence over the industry – a consensus held by most industry personalities including, not surprisingly, film commentators. But to get to the point: I once actually started wondering what all the hoopla over the position of film critic was. I’d been writing more or less regularly on local cinema since the turn of the decade, and had a membership (and occasional officer status) in the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino [Filipino Film Critics Circle], plus employment in the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, to show for it.

11011Still, there remained that disturbing atmosphere during movie occasions – previews, premieres, parties, and other such assemblages outside of the physical processes of movie-making – that anyone who could be present only at the presentation of a work could not actually have been involved with it and was therefore, for all intents and purposes, an outsider. A critic, for that matter, got away with slightly better treatment, some form of deference really, that to my mind has lost its original basis for existence, but that ought to be another story.

11011So in 1984, when the University of the Philippines announced the opening of a bachelor’s degree in film – the first not just in the country but in the immediate Asian region as well – I lost no time in re-applying for student status at the mass communication institute which was handling the course program. (Not quite accurate: I lost an entire semester, having learned of the program’s existence exactly when the ’84-85 academic year started, too late to arrange for my return to school.)

11011I had the advantage of holding an earlier degree (journalism, batch ’79) at the institute, plus the determination to finish as fast as possible whatever the cost, and maybe the first batch wasn’t so appreciative of the distinctions in store; they pointed out my exemption from the thesis requirement (already fulfilled by my earlier degree), but I retorted to myself that, unlike them, I had to finish a final individual film project, which the program’s coordinators justified as my equivalent of a production thesis.[3]

11011Anyway there I stood, for more than a year the only qualified film applicant in the history of Philippine education, willing to undergo whatever it would take to make me a part of the movie system at last.

11011What lay ahead, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. A major outfit sounded out a call for assistants in production, and as far as I knew, I was the only one who responded then. More than a month of follow-ups afterward, I finally got in – as an apprentice, I was forewarned, and for the rival of the company I had applied with. An apprentice, I was made to understand, gets free food but no pay, and is responsible for … well, whatever comes up during production. Break a leg then.

11011Someone who took charge instructed me to record everything that went on during the shooting – the blocking of everyone and everything on the set (including the lights), the position of everything that appeared in the camera viewfinder, the lines of dialog, the movement of actors, atmosphere people (a euphemism for extras), and physical objects, not to mention the usual details of date and sequence and scene numbers, location and performer(s) – for which I needed to continually refer to the script, a copy of which was provided me much, much later. Continuity, the job was called, although I distinctly recall carrying camera and related equipment, preparing coffee for a certain performer, and parrying the verbal abuse of several particularly irritable crew members. Plus I had to buy a stopwatch (I borrowed one instead) to time the individual takes, and reproduce as many copies of a certain form on which to keep my records.

11011I finally was able to plead for the reimbursement of the two reams of continuity forms that I had to mimeograph, and the film’s director, who provided me with invaluable recollections of the previously flourishing regional cinema with which he’d been involved, batted for a consolatory sum of money that the producers provided to defray part of my transportation expenses. At this point the creditors, who extended financial assistance so that I could be able to finish my second degree, were impatient for some material results. Without the benefit of clear thinking, I agreed to replace a would-have-been batch mate in a big-budget semi-period piece. As it turned out, the guy and his group mates edged me out in a more substantial fund-raising project, while the movie project I got into got shelved for alleged shortage of funds.

11011To the rescue came the muse I had abandoned. A colleague in writing, now into editing (while I was contemplating the feasibility of going insane), asked me to write for the publication she was handling. On what? I asked. The movies, she answered, since that’s where you’re now. I lay aside insanity for the moment but it arrived anyway in another form. The first production outfit I had applied with immediately after graduation this time offered me a respectable-enough designation in an out-of-town project. By then I was already making twice as much as the offer (which, I was assured, was already somewhat beyond standard rates) just writing for the publication and a television show on the side. When the movie I said no to got released, it made good box-office business and was reportedly its producer’s critical favorite, while the publication I had cast my lot with folded up and the TV show shut down.

11011Hope springs eternal even for those who never learn, but I’ll respect whatever way you interpret that: my alma mater somehow remembered it had an only graduate lying around (close to the literal sense) somewhere, who’d not only be the only academically qualified film worker in the country but also the only qualified film instructor as well.

11011So coming full circle now, what easier way to augment the predictably pitiful (but not for me, you bet) income that teachers receive? Why nothing else, or nothing less, than good old-fashioned semi-scholarly commentary on films. At least, this way I get to torment not only my students but my readers as well, and with a little bit of luck and a considerable amount of self-delusion, even the industry might consider restructuring its professional set-up in lieu of an oncoming onslaught by starry-eyed and financially secure film graduates – and doesn’t that add up quite logically, dramatically even, with this historical era of countless coup attempts? Anyway, till that moment arrives, I’ll be happy where I am. I guess.

Note

[1] After a few other (expected) false starts, the production thesis became a viable option in the eventually upgraded College of Mass Communication. Extremely few undergraduate candidates, in fact, choose the research option.

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A CULTURAL POLICY EXPERIENCE IN PHILIPPINE CINEMA

The autobiographical voice can be used to upset stable notions of the subject. That voice can tell not only of the past but of the difficulties that fragment and unsettle the narrative flow. And against [a] rather generalized account of the problems inherent in speaking, the autobiographical voice may yield specific instances of struggle against the ideological centering of the subject. (Probyn 115)

The final account of an object says as much about the observer as it does about the object itself. Accounts can be read “backwards” to uncover and explicate the consciousness, culture and theoretical organization of the observer. (Willis 90)

Overquotation can bore your readers and might lead them to conclude that you are neither an original thinker nor a skillful writer. (Gibaldi and Achtert 56)

In 1982, at the age of 23, I was designated Head of the Writers Section of the Public Relations Division of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. Barely three years earlier I was in semi-hiding while finishing my bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of the Philippines, on account of my aboveground involvement as managing editor of the student paper, which had run exposés on, among other things, the identity of the thrill-killer (a nephew of Ferdinand Marcos) of a UP student, as well as Imelda Marcos’s plan to raze down slum shanties (blamed in the Marcos-controlled press on arsonists) in order to construct recreation and commercial centers in their stead. I was also in charge of a propaganda unit of the student underground, and it was always ironically safer to assume that the military intelligence was aware of the fact, given the ease with which activist circles could be infiltrated. Upon getting my degree I was invited, along with a select few, to observe a newly opened guerrilla zone in the Cordillera mountains north of Manila; we had to carry arms, move along steep trails and cross the Chico River (whose proposed dam the Igorot and Kalinga tribes were opposing) by night, partake of the tribes’ viands consisting of insects, dog meat, and carabeef, and hide in rice granaries when the local militia raided the villages.

11011I backed out of my underground commitments after that experience, partly because I decided (as might be expected of a petit-bourgeois intellectual, as per classical Marxist prescriptions) that I much preferred to write, but also because the whole cause of our difficulties in the student movement – sudden shifts in assignments, reversals in criteria for evaluation, special projects without follow-up instructions – was laid bare for us by the New People’s Army officials who were our guides: the Communist Party of the Philippines was undergoing one of its most serious political upheavals ever, one which would result in a split between those who advocated the implementation of Mao Zhedong’s policy of encirclement of urban centers from the countryside and those who believed in carrying guerrilla warfare into the cities via assassinations of selected enemy targets (Abinales 40-43). I was too young to be overwhelmed by the implications of such challenges, but I also was not old enough to overcome my feeling of betrayal over the fact that such vital (and, I felt, life-threatening) information was withheld from me and my comrades, ostensibly to ensure our complicity with whoever happened to be in charge of our cell systems.

11011I therefore proceeded to undertake legit media freelance assignments, though I also had to avoid my earlier specialization in political and economic issues. Culture it had to be, then, which in Philippine terms is virtually synonymous with movies. True to my orthodox Marxist orientation, I preferred film reviewing to society-page reporting, and by 1980 I was invited to join the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, which was then the only other award-giving body for local cinema, as opposed to the corruption-ridden Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences or Famas. About this time the eldest Marcos child, Imee, was negotiating with the MPP and the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, headed by such Marcos oppositionists in culture as Cannes Film Festival mainstay Lino Brocka, in order to get their cooperation in setting up the institutional support system that would become the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. I got in through the recommendations of contacts in both the MPP and the CAP.

11011Of course the fact that this was an activity that could fall under the rumpled rubric of cultural policy could not have occurred to me then. By the standards of the still-in-place Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zhedong Thought that I was coming from, I had compromised my ideals the moment I severed my links with the underground; anything I did aboveground, even in conjunction with people who might still have been in touch with subterranean personalities, was my own Cross to bear or nut to crack, mixed idioms notwithstanding. About a decade later, halfway around the world, I might have taken heart from Tony Bennett’s suggestion that

Cultural studies might envisage its role as consisting of the training of cultural technicians: that is, of intellectual workers less committed to cultural critique as an instrument for changing consciousness than to modifying the functioning of culture by means of technical adjustments to its governmental deployment. (Bennett, “Useful Culture” 83)

Bennett of course was drawing from a number of assumptions that had transformed certain principles that may have been originally attributable to Marx. In terms of my field of involvement, for example, Stuart Hall was already then writing that popular culture may be formulated in terms of “the people versus the power-bloc: this, rather than ‘class-against-class,’ is the central line of contradiction around which the terrain of culture is polarized” (238). Bennett’s take on this formulation of the field of contestation for the cultural activist would have sounded strange to any Marxist engaged in political tasks then: cultural policy, he declared, would entail cooperating with ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) “rather than writing them off from the outset and then … criticizing them again when they seem to affirm one’s direst functionalist predictions” (“Putting Policy into Cultural Studies” 32).

11011Philippine politics under martial law would have been reconcilable with this perspective, but only through a roundabout process. Genuine opposition then (as contrasted with the state’s series of official opposition parties) was divided between the so-called national democrats or natdems (an alliance comprising the CPP, NPA, and the National Democratic Front, a coalition of aboveground left-leaning organizations) and the considerably smaller circle of social democrats or socdems, identified with the also-then-outlawed Social Democratic Party. It would be possible to relate the agitation within the natdems to defy Maoist dogma by taking the revolution into the cities with the socdems’ better-funded and more visible Light-a-Fire Movement – i.e., first attempts at what the Marcos regime declared was urban terrorist bombings. Natdem support was Third-World-based, if China were to be taken on its claim to being part of the Third World, while the socdems, whom the establishment press branded as steak commandos, were living (it up?) in exile in the US. The natdem line on Marcos was that he was a US-supported fascist, while that of the socdem – in order to whip up US support – was that he was a Communist. In retrospect, and with a little stretching, both were technically correct: Marcos was as much a reactionary authoritarian who sanctioned the brutal oppression of disenfranchised groups (though this was minor compared with his other abuses), while his apparently pathological quest for affluence and system of crony capitalism led him to using fail-safe legal justifications for the takeover by government of the most profitable economic institutions in the country, converting these into monopolies.

11011Hence, if the Marcos regime were not Communist, as the socdems charged, but pseudo-socialist in terms of state control of capital, then would it not be possible to work out ways and means of furthering leftist ideals within, say, a receptive government institution such as the ECP? As I had already related, this way of thinking could never have occurred to me, and my guess is that it might have sounded, to use Fredric Jameson’s term in his reaction to Bennett, obscene to Bennett himself, had he found himself in such a context. This is not to dismiss however Bennett’s inquisition into the thorny/muddy (the Philippines is tropical) realm of cultural policy. Closer to what most of us then were sensing, and managed to confirm by our participation, was Bennett’s oral response to a conference question thus:

Even where the government – in the sense of the party in power – is conservative, it does not follow that the bureaucracies that they [sic] superintend function like seamless webs and that there are no contradictions within them…. One of the most instructive aspects of the experience of working with government cultural agencies is to realize that – whilst Althusser says they function via the category of the subject – some of them just don’t seem to function at all! There’s a real lack of coordination between different branches of government and this makes many openings that can be utilized. (“Putting Policy” 36)

Again, though, it would not be entirely accurate to say that Marcos’s martial-law machinery was as inefficient as all that – after all, the man had held onto the presidency for over two decades during which he (in a manner of speaking) singlehandedly made himself one of the richest men – and his wife the richest woman, per a 1980s Fortune edition – in the world at one point, while reversing an entire country’s status from the fastest-developing to the least developed in Southeast Asia. More to the point is the personalistic nature of Philippine social relations, traceable to the communal values of the country’s rural and tribal communities; among the first things about Filipinos that foreigners notice, for example, are (traditionalist) Filipinos’ unabashed tactility as well as embarrassment over the handling of wealth and private property – hence, to indulge the issue further, Marcos’s renown for having or forcing his way with women and his infamous concealment of his financial and real holdings.

11011As far as the ECP went, people were participating with ears attuned to the goings-on in Malacañang Palace, the presidential residence. It was consistently observable that Imee Marcos was as contemptuous of her mother as she was attached to her father. Imelda in turn was vocal about her desire to get some genuine European royalty interested in Imee; when the latter had an affair with a sportsman from an oppositionist family, who (to make matters worse) was married to a beauty queen who was widely speculated to have been one of Marcos’s conquests, things started falling into place. In a way, this foreshadowed the succession of hubris and stop-gap measures that characterized the assassination of socdem figure Benigno Aquino, Jr. (hubris) and the call, under international pressure, for snap presidential elections (stop-gap) which resulted in the so-called people-power revolution of February 1986.

11011What happened in 1982 was the kidnapping of Imee’s lover, Tommy Manotoc, by the NPA, according to the military, though of course this was already getting recognized as a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the government (Aquino’s assassin, also assassinated, was to be identified as a Communist gunman). Mysteriously, Imee got back both her man, in a crudely staged rescue mission, and the position of Director-General of the ECP – which everyone expected to be headed by Imelda or John J. Litton, her (and Jack Valenti’s) subordinate. Imee’s fulfillment in her role as wife and mother-to-be was something which both cultural activists (aligned in Imee’s camp) and Imelda’s loyalists sought to take advantage of; so long as Imee held the top position, however, it was “our” camp that mostly won out in the end.

11011On two levels, then, we at the ECP had to contend with Hall’s observation that

If the forms of provided commercial popular culture are not purely manipulative, then it is because, alongside the false appeals, the foreshortenings, the trivialization and short-circuits, there are also elements of recognition and identification, something approaching a recreation of recognizable experiences and attitudes, to which people are responding. (233)

Our admittedly not-conscious application of this principle had to do with both working within, through, or out of the range and breadth afforded by palace intrigues, at the same time providing at least a semblance of actual support for the ECP’s constituencies whenever possible. The degrees of successful possibilities also varied between mother and daughter: in Imelda’s case I could only hope to put in a few words of universal encouragement to artists’ struggles in her Manila International Film Festival speech welcoming Xie Jin, then recently “rehabilitated” by the People’s Republic of China; in the case of Imee (who asked for material on extremely short notice), I could sneak in, for example, a promise that she would provide subsidies for independent film projects, then derived secret satisfaction in learning that some filmmakers called on her next day to seek fulfillment of her pledge. This was not to denigrate the symbolic achievement in marshaling Imelda’s MIFF, however. Despite Bennett’s claim that “the programmatic, institutional, and governmental conditions in which cultural practices are inscribed … have a substantive priority over the semiotic properties of such practices” (“Putting Policy” 28), it might be possible to re-assess the expulsion by Imee of the MIFF from the ECP as resulting in comparable status for both institutions, and providing the ECP with less of the goodwill (along with the notoriety of the Manila Film Center’s scaffolding collapsing on about 200 workers, many of whom had to be buried or killed in order for the construction to be completed on time) that the first MIFF had engendered.

11011In terms of the ECP’s camp (pun incidental) positions, then, the MIFF, as already mentioned, was Imelda territory, as were the Film Archives of the Philippines and the Film Fund, which provided subsidies for mainstream film projects. The service groups – public relations, where I functioned, and theater management – were in good hands, as far as we were concerned – meaning these were controlled and staffed by people from Imee’s circles in theater or the UP (where she and I were non-acquainted classmates before my activist years); more significant in terms of industry impact were the Film Ratings Board, which rebated the taxes of quality (measured according to plastic aesthetic worth) productions, and the Alternative Cinema Department, which produced full-length works by new directors and screened heretofore unavailable, censored, or banned foreign and local productions. One consideration in evaluating the efforts expended in attempting to implement progressivity in these areas is Hall’s admonition to avoid thinking “of cultural forms as whole and coherent: either wholly corrupt or wholly authentic. Whereas,… [in actual practice,] they play on contradictions” (233). Accordingly, it would be possible to say that, for example, the trend in sex films initiated by the MIFF, while denounced by both the censors and the left (including the MPP and the CAP), also made it possible for a number of filmmakers to come up with critiques of contemporary Philippine society using frameworks of social decadence (Scorpio Nights, 1985), protofeminist consciousness (Company of Women, 1985), or neocolonialist intrusions (Boatman, 1984); moreover, in order to prove that the libertarian spirit applied to more than just sexual themes, previously suppressed films (notably Manila by Night, 1980 and Sakada, 1976) were granted permission to be exhibited at the Manila Film Center. On the other hand, the breaks provided new talents by the Alternative Cinema Department also proved to be a mixed blessing, but in the opposite direction; the newcomers turned out to be either political reactionaries or incapable of surviving in the industry at large. A more rewarding activity was the same department’s unofficial mobilization, along with the CAP, of film artists in a series of mass actions against censorship. The irony of one government institution agitating against another was not lost on the chief censor, the late Maria Kalaw-Katigbak, who promptly invoked the fact of her being a presidential appointee and therefore on the same bureaucratic level as Imee Marcos.

11011The Aquino assassination led to a number of responses: the abandonment by Imee of her ECP responsibilities (supposedly to concentrate on her legislative assignments, although it became clear eventually that she was preparing to emigrate with her new family); the defection of a number of key personnel – some to opposition media, others (including myself) to the government’s less high-profile media center; and, finally, the dissolution of ECP, to be reconstituted as the Film Development Foundation of the Philippines under Litton – an entity which set about screening quickie sex films without regard to their sources, and sending its officials to trips abroad to solicit support for an MIFF that was already announced as not forthcoming in the foreseeable future. One way – perhaps the easiest – of accounting for this ultimate instability in what has turned out to be the only largely positive contribution of the Filipino government to its film industry is to maintain that bigger political considerations overrode such smaller cultural concerns. This leads us to Jameson’s dissent with Bennett’s call for participation in ISAs, stemming from the former’s view that culture

is not a “substance” or a phenomenon in its own right, it is an objective mirage that arises out of the relationship between at least two groups. This is to say that no group “has” a culture all by itself: culture is the nimbus perceived by one group when it comes into contact with and observes another one. It is the objectification of everything alien and strange about the contact group. (Jameson 33)

From the preceding account we can discern that the “two groups” in Jameson’s stipulation did not, perhaps even could not, remain consistent over time: first were the us-and-them formation of the Imee-vs.-Imelda camps, which almost instinctively coalesced into the ECP vis-à-vis the higher government organ (constructible in this sense as the Office of the President of the republic) as a response to the Aquino assassination, leading in the end – of the Marcos dictatorship, that is – to a still-to-be-problematized government-vs.-the people/the opposition binary. This fluidity, in the delimited sense used here, somehow serves to confirm Ian Hunter’s critique of the implications of Hall’s concept of articulation:

The notion of a general struggle between contending classes or “rival hegemonic principles” over ideologies or cultural meanings becomes unintelligible. Instead of appealing to the ideological articulation (in either sense) of class interests, we must look to the differentiated array of organizational forms in which cultural interests and capacities are formulated, if we are to engage with the forms in which they are assessed and argued over. (Hunter 118)

11011Hunter poses an even more difficult challenge in cultural practice, especially when such practice is ongoing, when he opines that “It is necessary to abandon the ethical posture and forms of cultural judgment invested in the concept of culture as complete development and true reflection” (115); in the ECP experience, this became manifest in the concurrence between the MPP and CAP on the one hand and the Board of Censors for Motion Pictures, which in turn called on a then-oppositionist Catholic Church to denounce the proliferation of sex-genre films at the Manila Film Center. The puritanism of the left has continued to play into the hands of media-control advocates consisting of both commercialist producers and always-interested conservative politicians, including members of the clergy. The absence of any form of support (apart from box-office responses) for sex films resulted in the marginalization of both their production and distribution after the February 1986 “revolution” – i.e., they continued to be produced, but only as B-items for exhibition in provincial circuits that could not be restrained by the censors (who wield police powers) because, as Corazon Aquino’s censors chief alleged, these circuits were military-operated. What may be necessary here is therefore an appreciation, on the part of responders, especially those in academe, of the “play on contradictions” mentioned by Hall (233) in the continuing popularity of the sex-film genre, beyond its strictly pornographic dimensions.

11011A further direction – that of the spectator – is implied by Meaghan Morris in her consideration of colonialist interventions:

When the voice of that which academic discourses – including cultural studies – constitute as popular begins in turn to theorize its speech, then … that theorization may well go round by way of the procedures that Homi Bhabha has theorized as “colonial mimicry,” for example, but may also come around eventually in a different, and as yet utopian, mode of enunciative practice. However, I think that this can happen only if the complexity of social experience investing our “place” as intellectuals today – including the proliferation of different places in and between which we may learn and teach and write – becomes a presupposition of, and not an anecdotal adjunct to, our practice. (Morris 41)

What this in effect suggests is the creation of a divide, if necessary, between what Philippine academicians and the media (which is heavily influenced by representatives from academia) hold onto as moral even in their most radical political agenda, and what “the people,” properly problematized, believe anyway, as manifest in their insistence on such supposedly disreputable film fare as escapist fantasies, blood-and-guts violence, stops-out melodrama, and graphic sex outings. Simon Frith’s recuperatory reformulation of the high-low dichotomy might prove to be a more workable starting point, rather than the poststructural extreme of discarding all measures for excellence as implicated by their formulators:

If one strand of the mass cultural critique was an indictment of low culture from the perspective of high art (as was obviously the case for Adorno, for example), then to assert the value of the popular is also, certainly, to query the superiority of high culture. Most populist writers, though, draw the wrong conclusion; what needs challenging is not the notion of the superior, but the claim that it is the exclusive property of the “high.” (105)

11011Of relevance here might be the concept of subcultures, so as not to fall into the trap of homogenizing the movie-going masses:

The study of subcultural style which seemed at the outset to draw us back towards the real world, to reunite us with “the people,” ends by merely confirming the distance between the reader and the “text,” between everyday life and the “mythologist” whom it surrounds, fascinates and finally excludes. It would seem that we are still, like Barthes, “condemned for some time yet to speak excessively about reality.” (Hebdige 140)

While therefore it may be necessary to accept Jameson’s description of the intellectual’s necessary and constitutive distance from classes of origin and chosen affiliation, and from social groups as well (40), it would also be useful to consider the principles, rather than the prescriptions, that underlie Bennett’s pronouncements on cultural policy:

If we are to write an adequate history of culture in the modern period, it is to the changing contours of its instrumental refashioning in the context of new and developing cultural and governmental technologies that we must look. This is not to say that the changing coordinates of “culture’s” semantic destinies are unimportant. However, it is to suggest that these derive their significance from their relations to culture’s governmental and technological refashioning. (“Useful Culture” 77)

How these tensions apply to a Third-World context characterized by a triple form of neocolonial (US) political, (Japanese) economic, and (Vatican-State) religious dependence is the question that Filipino cultural activists will have to seek answers to. I could, to be flippant about it, complete my tour of these colonizing influences by visiting the Vatican; or, more seriously, I could return to the Philippines and assume once more a role in cultural policy, or remain in academe and provide critical responses to developments in local culture. Where I come from, I can only productively engage in one activity at a time. Like those of the Philippines, my (mis)adventures still have to be played out.

Works Cited

Abinales, P. N. “Jose Maria Sison and the Philippine Revolution: A Critique of an Interface.” Kasarinlan: A Philippine Quarterly of Third World Studies 8.1 (3rd qtr. 1992): 5-81.

Aguiluz, Amable IV, dir. Boatman. Rafael Ma. Guerrero and Alfred A. Yuson, screenwriters, 1984.

Bennett, Tony. “Putting Policy into Cultural Studies.” Cultural Studies. Eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler. New York: Routledge, 1992. 23-34, Discussion 34-37.

———. “Useful Culture.” Blundell et al. 67-85.

Bernal, Ishmael, dir. and screenwriter. Manila by Night. 1980.

Blundell, Valda, John Shepherd, and Ian Taylor, eds. Relocating Cultural Studies: Developments in Theory and Research. London: Routledge, 1993.

Cervantes, Behn, dir. Sakada. Oscar Miranda and Lualhati Cruz, screenwriters, 1976.

Chionglo, Mel, dir. Company of Women. Raquel N. Villavicencio, screenwriter, 1985.

Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. The Second Edition. Unpublished annual report. Metro Manila: ECP Public Relations Division, 1984.

———. Year One. Annual report. Metro Manila: ECP Public Relations Division, 1983.

Frith, Simon. “The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent: Defending Popular Culture from the Populists.” Diacritics 21.4 (Winter 1991): 102-15.

Gallaga, Peque, dir. Scorpio Nights. Rosauro de la Cruz, screenwriter, 1985.

Gibaldi, Joseph, and Walter S. Achtert. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 3rd ed. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1988.

Hall, Stuart. “Notes on Deconstructing ‘The Popular.’” People’s History and Socialist Theory. Ed. Raphael Samuel. London: Routledge, 1981. 227-39.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge, 1979.

Hunter, Ian. “Setting Limits to Culture.” New Formations 4 (1988): 103-23.

Jameson, Fredric. “On Cultural Studies.” Social Text 34 (1993): 17-52.

Morris, Meaghan. “Banality in Cultural Studies.” Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Ed. Patricia Mellencamp. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. 14-43.

Philippine Collegian. Weekly student newspaper. Quezon City: University of the Philippines, 1978-79.

Probyn, Elspeth. “True Voices and Real People: The ‘Problem’ of the Autobiographical in Cultural Studies.” Blundell et al. 105-22.

Willis, Paul. “Notes on Method.” Culture, Media, Language. Eds. Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe, and Paul Willis. London: Hutchinson, 1980. 88-95.

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SMALL WORM, BIG APPLE

Commissioned by a student publication during my exchange stint in Korea. I knew then that other folk would be paying attention, so I did a roundabout way of name-dropping the previous foreign locale I’d lived and worked in.

I could have been one of the many jinxes that started upending the Paradise that was New York City since the nineties. The World Trade Center was first bombed a few months after I arrived and collapsed a few months before I finally left for home. A demented tourist shot a number of sightseers at the observation deck of the EmpireState building – a structure that loomed right outside the office where I worked for almost eight years. An unemployed immigrant also shot several passengers on a train leaving the city for the suburbs. The stock market plunged twice, first because of the Asian economic recession, then because of the overvaluation of dot-com shares.

11011In all instances except the last, foreigners were considered responsible for what happened. Yet this was one of the contradictions about living in that city, as opposed to living elsewhere in North America: everyone there was a foreigner, or had descended from one. Of course virtually all Americans are non-native, but it seemed that only when they get to New York do they care to point out how, at some point in the past, they actually belonged elsewhere.

11011The place had a certain way of exacting payback. I was supposed to be able to finish my studies, my share of the all-American dream, through the all-American method of working hard. What didn’t show up in the equation was that the money I’d earn, the largest I’d ever make in my life up to that point, would amount to less than nothing in the face of the exorbitant cost of living. I eventually wound up with my graduate degrees, plus a few thousand dollars’ worth of student loans.

11011In the face of such an unwelcome and unmitigated disaster, how did I manage to muddle through? If I thought then, as I do now, that the place was just as badly (or even worse) hit than I was, that would have been no consolation. Once I left the city, I’d have to wait out two years working in the Philippine national university before I could find a job that paid decently enough to pay off the loans.

11011The answer would be self-evident enough to anyone living in New York. The place itself has enough talent and diversity to make even the poorest resident occasionally feel lucky to be alive. A master violinist from a major Chinese orchestra, a black doo-wop trio with remarkable timing and perfect harmony, a female performance artist who could assume unusual poses for long stretches, Peruvian musicians invoking the Andes through their charango and panpipes, and so on … and these were just the characters one could encounter performing for loose change in the subway.

11011When the major opera houses announced their new seasons, I’d be in line for my student-priced tickets, each one a tenth of what a Broadway musical would cost me. One of the little secrets of long-time “cultured” New Yorkers is that they never go to Broadway, only to the opera, although my reason for attending was that I was a student of the spectacle (of cinema, but before that, historically speaking, there was only the stage). When my out-of-town friends would insist on Broadway shows then complain about how backward the stories were and how old-fashioned their politics played out, I’d try to convince them to try an opera, which would have the same brand of outmoded ideological positions, but with better music, finer singing, and grander staging. Besides, I’d say, Broadway’s origins lay in a lesser form, the Viennese operetta. No go, though; seemed like people in the rest of the world would not respect any of their friends who went to New York and spent their time on presentations that did not feature pop stars and current music.

11011I always envied those who’d been to the great museums of Europe, but every so often the New York institutions would mount retrospectives that would be the equivalent of the usually-dead artists coming back to rework their magic: Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, the circle of French surrealists, and of course the shock artists whose exhibits Rudy Giuliani attempted to thwart. In my specialization, I’d taken the number of free and discounted film screenings so much for granted that, when my home university asked me for my first-year viewing list, I was amazed to jot down, based on my notes, brochures, and tickets, over 300 titles of the widest possible array of movies, from high art to trash, from festival favorite to disreputable pre-Disneyfied Times Square run, from fun genre sample to structural-materialist cerebration (my favorite, which I made sure to watch twice in its entirety, was two hours of Michael Snow whirling his camera on various axes from atop a Canadian mountain).

11011There’d be food my friends and I would treat ourselves to when we had the spare funds, categorized according to nationality: Greek (authentic but also occasionally the code word for all-around New York diner), Italian, Mexican, French, Spanish, Ethiopian, Malaysian, Indian, Korean, and the always-reliable Chinese. Wines could be found for as low as $3 a bottle, so I could indulge my alcoholic depression by pretending I was learning vintage and vinification.

11011All in all the range and breadth of distractions would be enough to make you believe the place was worth living in despite its inadequate services and pugnacious population (and hey, I was one of them too for a time). Enough to sometimes forget what you originally came for, in fact. The first time my late father saw me again, he said: “I can’t believe it – I never thought I’d live to see the day when you grew old.” He said I reminded him of Rip van Winkle, a New York character created by a New York author. And at that point I knew the dream was over. I was finally back home.

[First published May 2, 2005, as “Growing Old in New York (Or Small Worm, Big Apple)” in The Hallym Post]

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