Nether Nation

Lockdown
Directed by Joel C. Lamangan
Written by Troy Espiritu

A recent Philippine film release will be easy to overlook because it appears exploitative and merely topical – starting with its title, Lockdown. It recently ended its extended streaming run and has been slated to compete at the Asian Film Festival in Barcelona as well as this year’s FACINE International Film Festival in San Francisco (also with a streaming option). The latter festival has what may be the strongest lineup in any millennial Philippine film event, reminiscent of the glory years of the long-diminished Metro Manila Film Festival.

11011At first glance, Lockdown may be regarded as part of the series of films initiated by Lino Brocka’s Macho Dancer (1988, hereafter MD), where rentboys contend with the sordid realities of Third-World existence. The Lockdown director’s previous film, in fact, claimed to be the first authentic sequel to Brocka’s biggest global hit, as indicated in its title, Son of Macho Dancer.[1] Most entries in this series tended to be weighed down (as MD was) by their insistence on the dignity claimed against all odds by their central characters, as well as by the insularity of the sex workers’ situation. MD nodded toward the degeneracy induced by the presence of US military bases, but abandoned those concerns once the title character set out for the metropolitan center.

11011Joel C. Lamangan, who played the role of an unruly queer madam in MD, invests Lockdown with the same vision of an infernal underworld, but relocates the community to a coastal district, where Danny, an overseas worker forced to return after the global pandemic shut down the Dubai hotel where he worked, escapes from the mandatory 14-day quarantine to be able to raise funds for the recuperation of his recently handicapped father while acting as family breadwinner. The suburban setting considerably facilitates the mapping of territories that separate the seaside slum from the more affluent (and safeguarded) business centers, as well as the most militarized location of them all: the police compound with its discreet cluster of cottages for legally indefensible activities.

11011Like more aspirational working-class graduates than we realize, Danny worked out a gay-for-pay arrangement with Lito, a young entrepreneur, to be able to complete his studies; but since the pandemic was no respecter of overseas boundaries, Lito’s catering business also had to suspend its operations. The only income-earning activity Lito happened to be aware of was the one sustained by foreign customers, via live video exchanges, where native hunks offer to dance naked and engage in increasingly salacious displays, depending on the price the viewer pays. (The local term, vidjakol, is both a pun for video call and a portmanteau of video and the clipped slang term for ejaculation.)

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11011The necessarily clandestine activity is conducted in Mama Rene’s Café, with the proprietor acting as barker, webmaster, trainer, and financier in charge of the performers’ income as well as a police official’s protection payment. Littered with antique appliances, the coffeehouse’s ground floor serves as audition space as well as lounge area for Mama Rene and his stud collection. The income-generating activities take place in crammed cubicles on the next floor, all darkened except for video monitors and spotlights illuminating the on-cam performances. Although initially nauseated by the abject nature of this version of sex work (as opposed to the escort service he used to do), Danny manages to find some professional equanimity in the tasks at hand, motivated by his father’s deteriorating condition and buoyed by the camaraderie of his fellow performers.

11011As it turns out, the further challenges that lie in store for the narrative hero escalate from this point onward, rapidly and terrifyingly. The turning point is occasioned by a comic lovers’ quarrel that turns violent and leads to wholesale betrayal. Throughout these dramatic shifts, Lamangan ensures that we remain mindful of Danny’s plight by maintaining unconditional empathy with the character; his strategy is matched by a performance startling in its fierce commitment from Paolo Gumabao, one of the exceptional local cases where an offspring manages to surpass anything done by his actor-parent, Dennis Roldan.

11011Even with less-than-ideal material, Lamangan is capable of guaranteeing stellar performances, from himself as well as for others. (For adequate proof, check out his other FACINE filmfest entry, One More Rainbow, where he draws out heart-tugging ensemble work from a trio of now-elderly stars from the Second Golden Age.) In Lockdown, he manages to differentiate a motley mix of vidjakol players via sharp performative strokes: the final sob story, for example, is rendered by a cherubic actor who actually smiles throughout – a masterly touch that indicates how the speaker is aware that he uses the same lines to elicit sympathy (and, consequently, larger tips) from his customers, yet intends to inform his peers without adding to their already overwhelming burdens.

11011PC guardians will be thrown off by the resolutely negative queer imaging in Lockdown, where the higher the out-gay character’s position, the more malevolent he turns out to be. Yet this perturbing state of affairs should be seen as postqueer, rather than homophobic. The characters presume to stake their claims on limited resources and rewards, enabling impoverished local citizens to conduct transactions with better-heeled clients that they would never be able to encounter otherwise in their daily lives. More crucially, the global circuits of cash and power tracked via these personalities demonstrate the inroads made in the lives of our dispossessed by internet media – implicating in no uncertain terms the very same types of viewers who would be ultimately watching presentations like Lockdown.[2]

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11011A reflexive glance might help us appreciate the movie’s achievement better. Brocka first attempted to depict the underworld of male hustling via an extensively improvised sequence in Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975), most of which was excised after the author of the source novel objected to the contrivance. MD was therefore more of a more carefully planned (though also highly unstable) treatment of the material. Who should turn up as the embodiment of the apex exploiter in Lockdown? None other than Allan Paule, MD’s lead actor, who in effect provides both an extension of the earlier film’s triumphant ending as well as a critical suggestion of where all its desperation and inhumanity could wind up, with a character thoroughly incapable of expressing the warmth and concern he was once able to summon for his fellow sex pros.

11011Considering the defiance and frustration that Brocka expressed right before his unexpectedly sudden death, Lockdown might well be the movie he would have made if he survived into the present millennium and its discontents. No higher accolade can be granted to a Filipino filmmaker than stating that she or he has made a work worthy of Brocka’s highest aspirations, and Lockdown happens to be one such rare instance.

Note

First published September 27, 2021, as “Macho Dancing Goes Virtual in Joel Lamangan’s Lockdown” in The FilAm. Constant thanks to Jerrick Josue David (no relation) and Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr. for alerting me to the creative ascent in the recent output of my namesake.

[1] An interesting sample, exploitative in the extreme but tackling head-on the issue of human trafficking, is Lamangan’s No Way Out (2008), worth tracking down for a look-see. The films regarded as MD’s direct successors, completed and marketed following the same sure-fire circuit as Brocka’s landmark release, are Midnight Dancers (1994), Burlesk King (1999), and Twilight Dancers (2006), all directed by the late Mel Chionglo.

[2, spoiler alert] As further elaborated in the succeeding paragraphs, a comparison with Lino Brocka, this time in terms of his handling of the reflexive potential of media, would be in order: it may be considered a weakness of Brocka that he was unable to subject media to critical reconsideration during his short and abruptly terminated career. Either the media were inexplicably absent (as they were in MD) or they served as empirical chroniclers of history-in-the-making, even occasionally providing a counterweight to government corruption. The presence of a TV reporter in Lockdown, who feeds on the police department’s hypocritical suppression of what they announced as an offense to public decency, and who instructs her crew to film the hapless performers against their will, is given insidious significance once an abusive official repeats her words to justify torturing some of the prisoners.

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A Missing Installation in the Philippine Pantheon

I have decided to attempt the drafting and revision of an article whose final form I am still uncertain about. It will have elements of what we might recognize as basic film research, so it may wind up as a formal essay or a scholarly article. Depending on the terms that any prospective publisher might specify, this article may be pulled out (“embargoed” I think is the technical term) before it can be considered finalized. I will of course alert readers where and when it will be published. For the foreseeable future, I expect to add bibliographic notes, to be minimized if I can help it, and illustrations, as much as I can compile.

I must begin with a personal paradox: I started in film studies during a time when auteurism (or the “auteur theory” for those who prefer Andrew Sarris’s mistranslation of the politique des auteurs) had its heyday and persisted mostly in the minds of what today’s cultural snobs would call fanboys. I participated in such activities as a way of demonstrating the many lacks that local critical practitioners brought to their activities, and saw the millennial generation pick up on the mechanics but not the critique that I thought would make people hesitate or avoid auteur politics altogether.

11011I subsequently became aware that the prevalent trend in pop-culture activity will always be toward more prestige markers, not less. In undertaking what I hoped would be my ultimate (and therefore final) stab at canon-formation, I came to understand a significant aspect of its appeal: in recounting a work we have cherished, the more exclusively the better, we get to replicate the pleasure we experienced in appreciating the piece, along with the satisfaction of knowing, or hoping, that our writing might persuade other people to reconsider their differences with us.

11011The canon project I had been working on (formally as consultant for a publication team) affirmed for me the collected names of appreciated filmmakers – or what Sarrists would call a Pantheon, an assemblage of worthies – along with occasional additions or tweaks, mainly in the direction of rectifying the constant and predictable errors of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, the original Filipino critics circle. This process has become so commonplace that most of the better young film bloggers could figure out for themselves how to evaluate films and bodies of work without falling into the established critics’ self-laid traps.

11011With earlier film samples, the provision of proof becomes more burdensome, mainly because of the country’s archival travails. One might stumble across the claim of certain oldtimers (some of them now gone) that Gerry de Leon’s the all-time greatest Pinoy film talent, were it not for the loss of his best entry, Daigdig ng mga Api [World of the Oppressed] (1965). Yet when I reread a vital article by the best among the first batch of MPP members, Petronilo Bn. Daroy, he expressed serious reservations regarding this film, and instead upheld Lamberto V. Avellana’s Anak Dalita [Child of Sorrow] (1956). Lamentably, the film exists, in a remastered condition … and will probably be unable to sustain more than a single screening with audiences who do not share its church-fomented biases against slum residents, lumpenproles, and racial minorities.

Contentions

Interestingly, these first two winners of the Order of the National Artist represented not just rival studios but also different sets of creative associates and political affinities. Although both (along with another National Artist, Eddie Romero) directed episodes of Tagumpay ng Mahirap [Triumph of the Poor] (1965) for Diosdado Macapagal’s ultimately failed campaign against Ferdinand E. Marcos, Avellana managed to switch sides quickly and effectively enough to be able to get his National Artist recognition ahead of de Leon. The one last studio-era National Artist, Manuel Conde, also labors under the loss of his “best” entry, the series of political satires that feature his version of folk trickster Juan Tamad. What remains in his name is the charmingly problematic Genghis Khan (1950), evidence of the Philippines’s once-confident cosmopolitanism in appropriating a “lesser” culture’s heroic figure and devising rollicking entertainment premised on the legendary exploits that led to the rise in power of Temujin Borjigin, prior to his Eurasian expansion of the Mongol Empire during the 13th century.

11011Hence the First Golden Age film that most contemporary film buffs have been holding in highest regard for the past few decades would be Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa [Blessings of the Land] (1959). Like Anak Dalita, it was produced by LVN Pictures, famed for its costume epics. Another quality both pictures share is an insistence on social conservatism as vital to the definiton of nationhood, along with the open and violent rejection of marginal characters. It would be tempting to conclude that Filipino film observers tend to revert to reactionary values in evaluating the past, although I would caution against such a headlong conclusion. It may be safer to assume that whatever tools they may have devised for appreciating contemporary releases seem to them to be inappropriate for older films.

11011For this reason I have maintained the vital importance held by Gregorio Fernandez’s Malvarosa (1958). I also submit that its modernity gestures toward our present, which is why it appears anachronistic, capable of baffling viewers of early cinema who expect the samples to be genteel, virtuous, placid, and old-fashioned, possibly out of understandable and well-placed empathy for their elders. Nevertheless such sentiments are beyond me, for better or worse, so my own uphill struggle to convince colleagues to keep rewatching these titles until they arrive at a level of familiarity that breeds either contempt or admiration can only be assuaged by the fact that Malvarosa will be capable of leaving behind most of them, and a lot of latter-day cinema besides.

11011A major part of the difficulty of championing Malvarosa is the figure of its director. Gregorio Fernandez was celebrated for his mid-1950s output, which when regarded by the acclaim bestowed by the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences Awards would have indicated a declension: from a sweep of the major categories for Higit sa Lahat [More than Everything] (1955), to a best film and technical prize only for Luksang Tagumpay [Mournful Victory] (1956), to nominations for the direction of Hukom Roldan [Judge Roldan] (1957) and Kung Ako’y Mahal Mo [If You Love Me] (1960), with an “International Prestige Award of Merit” (presumably for foreign film-festival recognition) for Malvarosa.

11011As anyone familiar with award-giving trends might be able to infer by now, these prizes do not track Fernandez’s achievements with satisfactory accuracy. His first incontrovertible world-class masterwork arrived before the FAMAS took notice, in Prinsipe Teñoso [Prince Teñoso] (1954), dismissed then presumably for being an overtly commercial adaptation of a literary form, the metrical romance, introduced during the Spanish colonial era and previously filmed in 1942, also for LVN Pictures, by Manuel Conde (who takes story credit in the Fernandez version). From available evidence, Higit sa Lahat would be a gendered twist on the Hollywood melodrama favorite Stella Dallas (dir. Henry King, 1925; King Vidor, 1937), but the succeeding films up to Malvarosa demonstrate more admirable and often successful risk-taking.

“Yoyong”

Born in 1904, Fernandez died before he reached 70, in 1973. This was about a year after the Order of the National Artist of the Philippines was first introduced. Considering the many other Filipinos who were able to acquire the distinction after they had died, Fernandez is certainly highly qualified. In fact, with the ready availability of several of his major projects for his home studio, LVN Pictures, one could easily make the argument that Fernandez has been severely underrated and unfairly overlooked.

11011The prevailing assumption about Fernandez is that he shone brightest during the 1950s, the height of the First Golden Age, with a number of his films dominating the so-named academy prizes, in a way that would only be surpassed by Gerardo de Leon, an early National Artist Awardee, in the 1960s. The comparison between the two filmmakers goes beyond the acclaim they received during this period. They were both actors, held advanced health-science degrees (de Leon in medicine and Fernandez in dentistry), provided unforgettable roles for actresses, and had clan members who also became prominent in the local industry.

11011While de Leon’s productive streak continued way after the collapse of the studio system in the early 1960s, Fernandez’s output became scarcer until he seemingly gave up on making films altogether. Unlike de Leon, who was still working on an unfinished epic (Juan de la Cruz, for Fernando Poe Jr.) when he died, Fernandez worked on a hagiographic bio-picture for Diosdado Macapagal and a few sex-themed films. De Leon also did Daigdig ng mga Api for Macapagal’s campaign and a number of genre projects, but he seemed to weather the collapse of the studio system better than Fernandez, making films for the actor-producers who dominated the independent-production system as well as B-films for the US drive-in market.

11011The relative inactivity of Fernandez may have baffled serious observers during the time, but all we have are a few reports posted online as well as the accounts of some of his now-elderly contemporaries. (People were understandably more discreet during this period.) His daughter Merle forged ahead of the aspiring sex sirens of the late 1960s by pioneering in the trend known as bomba, which were erotic melodramas that were premised on the more (literally and figuratively) frontal depictions and discussions of carnal situations that originated in Western cinemas.

11011While the founding elders of the MPP decried the collapse of the vertically integrated studio system (and the First Golden Age along with it), I have pointed out elsewhere that the tendencies they considered most deplorable – bomba films and teen-idol musicals, both products of low-budget “quickie” efforts – actually betoken a progressive sensibility in the local mass audience. Because the new urbanites, comprising rural migrants working in factories and domestic labor, demanded a new breed of stars who resembled them more closely (non-white females rather than the studios’ emphasis on Euro-manqué males), the standard old-time mestizo performers were forced to immerse in taboo-busting material.

11011We ought to take note of the fact that a National Artist for Literature, Bienvenido Lumbera, once stressed (in “Pelikula” 216) that bomba films deserve to be revaluated in light of their overt challenge to the strictures of conservatism and denial of women’s prerogatives in acting on their desires and preferences. (Fernandez’s last film, in fact, starred his daughter, possibly accounting for an abhorrent rumor that both engaged in an incestuous relationship.[1]) With the declaration of martial law in 1972 by President Ferdinand E. Marcos, bomba-film production ended, as did Merle Fernandez’s acting career for the most part. Instead, she provided contacts and support for her younger brother Rudy, who became one of the country’s top action stars, renowned for his ability to combine stunt scenes with serious drama.[2]

Family Tragedy

Interview articles on Gregorio Fernandez during this period situate him in his hometown, where he earned another kind of renown – as an expert cockfighter. He may have worked this out as his way of retiring from industry practice, although this may also indicate some degree of estrangement (from his familial and work circles). One might want to speculate that his professional troubles may have started from the suicide of his wife, Pilar Padilla, whom he had directed and performed with in a 1946 title, Dalawang Daigdig (per the Internet Movie Database). The tributes that came out after Rudy Fernandez’s untimely death from cancer mention how he was the first family member to encounter his mother’s body – a traumatic experience, considering he was 5 years old when she died in 1957.

11011We can speculate on the ways that this incident may have affected Fernandez’s frame of mind, i.e. that he still valiantly managed to come up with an early feminist masterpiece the next year, in Malvarosa, and that he lost his enthusiasm for innovative filmmaking afterward, as perceivable in a decline in his later LVN films. This would be a tricky way of applying auteurist principles, however, primarily because his non-LVN films from the 1960s onward are unavailable. To reference once more Gerardo de Leon, I remember how most cineastes tended to uphold his prestige productions up to Daigdig ng mga Api but dismissed his co-productions and genre projects; yet when video copies of these films became available later, many of them constituted major revelations.[3]

11011In Fernandez’s case, we are fortunate to have LVN scion Mike de Leon, who has overseen the video transfers of nearly all existing Fernandez films and selflessly uploaded these on his Vimeo website, open-access style. I would enjoin all Filipino film enthusiasts to go over the Fernandez titles chronologically, to be able to acquire a proper appreciation of his considerable skills as director and actor. The most significant aspect I noticed in the major films was his careful attention to identity issues, both in terms of strong women (and children) roles as well as in a sincere respect for Muslim Filipinos, to the point of providing them with a heroic twist in the spy narrative of Kontrabando (1950).

11011He could not avoid the Cold War tendency to demonize East Asian characters, unfortunately; but in Capas (1949), he brought up the fraught issue of wartime collaboration and provided a conflicted Japanese officer as a way of demonstrating to the Filipino double-agent that people on the enemy side could also be capable of human decency. We may note here that this film came out almost right after the end of World War II, several decades ahead of Mario O’Hara’s comparable (though expectedly better-focused) Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos (1976).

11011The other primary mark of Fernandez’s films is his willingness to deploy comedy. Even in his serious works, this tendency enables him to approach the material with a light touch, reminiscent of a great Classical Hollywood practitioner, Ernst Lubitsch. Despite its several promotional placements, Miss Philippines (1947) evinces the bemused stance that would sustain Fernandez through the “heavier” material he would tackle later; in fact the situation of the alcoholic mother and the daughter torn apart by filial loyalty and her longing for happiness would subsequently reappear, with fuller social implications, in Malvarosa.

11011In the meanwhile, he came up with the only available color film bearing his credit, Prinsipe Teñoso (1954), and it’s a marvel beyond the novelty of its Ruritanian-type romance. Its storytelling is so assured and skillful that the existing print’s archival problem, resulting in a narrative leap from the title character’s attempt to defy his father to his wandering in another kingdom as a leper whose true form appears when he bathes, becomes an unexpected modernist touch – perfectly in keeping with the film’s championing of women, captives, the outcast, and Islamic outsiders.

11011Fernandez’s major FAMAS winners were Higit sa Lahat (1955) and Luksang Tagumpay (1956), which attempt to spin the genre of melodrama by placing the burden of saving the family on male characters. The first time I saw these two during a late 1980s retrospective, I had the impression (affirmed in Prinsipe Teñoso) of a director who was not content with observing the standard approaches dictated by genres, star personas, even Classical Hollywood stylistic prescriptions. The now-missing final sequences of Luksang Tagumpay had an Expressionistic denouement, where the central male character’s domestic world literally starts falling apart around him. I remembered having just seen a similar sequence in a film whose title escaped me then; when I saw it again later – Mikhail Khalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying – I needed a double-take, because Luksang Tagumpay had preceded it by a year.

11011This was all in preparation for a final Fernandez revelation, heralded by Mike de Leon’s social-media announcement. Hukom Roldan (1957) is the major black-and-white discovery of our time, proof that Fernandez’s maverick impulses led him to attempt narrative and cinematic techniques that heralded a globally influential trend that was just about to break out a year later in France. The fragmentation of linear time, abrupt shifts from one character to another, sudden insertions of direct-address sequences – even the narrative twist in following the title character’s story only to focus more intently on the woman he inadvertently betrayed: when Alfred Hitchcock attempted this defiance of audience expectation a few years later in Psycho (1960), the gender emphasis was in the more conventional direction of disposing of an unruly woman so we could focus on the man who solves the mystery of her disappearance.

11011I am not in the habit of lionizing our local filmmakers so enthusiastically, because I believe that we do them (and ourselves) a disservice by overemphasizing their achievements. With Gregorio Fernandez, I have finally come across a filmmaker whose available body of work can sustain enough appreciation for us to declare, no matter how late in our history, another master film artist. I would rate Malvarosa (1958), for which he is justly celebrated, as superior to all the other existing “best” works – Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan (1950), Lamberto V. Avellana’s Anak Dalita (1956), Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa (1959); Gerardo de Leon would peak in the 1960s, so Fernandez’s films in the 1950s ought to rate more highly than even de Leon’s.

11011Inasmuch as it would take too much time to explicate why Malvarosa deserves more than the significant appreciation it already enjoys (our best black-and-white movie would not be difficult to declare), I should just close for now by pointing out its merits vis-à-vis its contemporaries: its focus on the downtrodden is not “redeemed” by the intervention of society’s superiors; it embraces slum culture – its lingo, pastimes, and aspirations – while slyly and good-naturedly pointing out their limits; it provides warm emotional closure without falsifying the tragic losses that our poverty-stricken compatriots (still) undergo. This may help explain why it has been easier for film commentators to dwell on the other 1950s films: although more identifiably of its time than most of the other entries, the treatment that Malvarosa invests in this material is beyond-classical in its sophistication and naturalistic in its sociological observations.

Notes

[1] Rap Fernandez, grandson of Gregorio Fernandez via his son Rudy and the latter’s wife Lorna Tolentino, replied to my query on the allegation by stating: “I was only made aware of the rumor through the research I conducted for my thesis on Gregorio but I know for a fact that this is blatantly untrue. There were even rumors that my father was Merle and Gregorio’s secret son but that’s just completely false.” A niece of Merle, Jane Po, affirmed not just the falsity but also the implausibility of such a scenario. (Both exchanges were conducted via Facebook Messenger.)

[2] Gregorio Fernandez introduced Rudy to Sampaguita Pictures in time for the musical teen-idol trend mentioned earlier, but he probably shared his elder sister Merle’s dilemma of being too fair for the preferences of the early 1970s mass audience, aside from coming in when the trend (along with bomba) was at its peak. Rap Fernandez pointed out Merle’s involvement in finding opportunities for Rudy; she also grieved over his death from a terminal illness, maintaining that she had lost someone she deeply cared for (interview with Leavold & Palisa).

[3] It would make sense to place Gregorio Fernandez’s peak in the 1950s, a decade removed from Gerardo de Leon’s, since the latter actually was nearly ten years younger. Gerry de Leon’s Terror Is a Man (1959), Women in Cages (1971), Kulay Dugo ang Gabi [The Blood Drinkers] (1964), and Ibulong Mo sa Hangin [Blood of the Vampires] (1964) hold varying degrees of admirable regard for cineastes who specialize in B-film production.

Works Cited

Daroy, Petronilo Bn. “Main Currents in the Filipino Cinema.” Readings in Philippine Cinema. Ed. Rafael Ma. Guerrero. Manila: Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1983. 95-108.

Leavold, Andrew, and Daniel Palisa, dirs. The Last Pinoy Action King. Documentary. Reflection Films, Death Rides a Red Horse, and Quiapost Productions, 2015.

Lumbera, Bienvenido. “Pelikula: An Essay on Philippine Cinema.” Tuklas Sining: Essays on the Philippine Arts. Ed. Nicanor G. Tiongson. Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1991. 190-229.

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Siren Call

Nerisa
Directed by Lawrence Fajardo
Written by Ricky Lee

Among the “new normal” adjustments in media consumption induced by the still-ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the emergence of streaming as a viable, though still far from preferable, option to theater-going was definitely on its way to happening, with the current health crisis only speeding up its inevitable arrival. Not surprisingly, streaming has now become the place to watch out for pop-culture benchmarks, unless one insists on adhering to the increasingly nonsensical insistence of the Philippines’s critical and academic elite (same circle, for the most part) that the high-art presentation of poverty issues is the cinematic ideal to aspire to.

11011Among the country’s streaming participants, Viva Films has resumed its early role as determined new player, the same way it set out to challenge the then-nearly monolithic Regal Films when it first emerged during the 1980s. This time, however, it also seems to be partaking of the innovations that Regal once became known (or notorious) for, including its reliance on commercial (“low” to the critical elite) genres and bare-bones budgeting.

11011I would be remiss if I fail to report that with a currently streaming release, Nerisa (available via Vivamax & other services), it has finally struck gold, the same way that Regal regularly did during its time. Shot on a schedule resembling Regal’s pito-pito (₱2 million, minuscule for 1990s celluloid, for seven days of production plus another seven of postproduction), the project intercepted a young filmmaker, Lawrence Fajardo, on his way to upgrading his fluency in the medium while extending his grasp to material he had not yet attempted.

11011Fajardo’s qualitative shift in directorial expertise was affirmed when his previous project, Kintsugi (the technique of pottery repair in Japanese), shared the Young Critics Circle’s top prize with Raya Martin’s Death of Nintendo. Fajardo started out by specializing in the multicharacter-film format, a challenge that only a select number of filmmakers accepted with regularity, including Ishmael Bernal, the country’s undisputed master of the form. With Imbisibol, an earlier film set in the northernmost (and therefore coldest) Japanese island of Hokkaido, he depicted the lives of undocumented Pinoy migrants – one of whom was played by the luminous Bernardo Bernardo – beset by financial and immigration troubles, and attained a personal best.

11011Nerisa benefits immensely from the narrative treatment shaped by Ricky Lee, who has apparently reworked his script for Laurice Guillen’s Salome (1981), in its focus on the plight of an outcast couple in a coastal village. Since it follows a linear trajectory rather than the recollections in Salome of a crime of passion from the perspectives of several participants, Nerisa enables its characters to position themselves in the violence-prone class and gender dynamics that a patriarchal order imposes on its citizens, and further qualifies the proceedings by articulating (via radio commentaries) the global concerns of our fisherfolk confronted by Chinese vessels overstepping their territorial boundaries and plundering Philippine waters.

11011The townsfolk are far more aware this time of the impact of alien forces taking undue interest in local resources (as has always been the case since the 16th century), with the elders explaining how recent industrial activities cause landslides and pollution that make it impossible for fishes to thrive close to shore. So the scarcity of catch at all familiar distances, coupled with the possibility of superior foreign vessels ramming native fishing boats and leaving the occupants to the mercy of the sea, has made fishing-as-livelihood both difficult and dangerous. Obet, the title character’s husband, badgers his peers to venture beyond municipal fishing grounds in order to be able to purchase his own boat and stop relying on the preferences of boat-owning artisans.

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11011As in Salome, the couple live beyond the pale of their town’s quotidian concerns. Obet was an orphan raised by a childless couple, with his stepsister Lilet (an abandoned child being raised by the same couple) narrating Nerisa’s tale. Nerisa herself was a foundling rescued by Obet from drowning, who cannot remember her past life, and whose beauty is enhanced by her faithfulness to her savior; understandably the men who learn about her develop a fairly strong carnal interest in her, while their wives suspect her of bringing to their island the rusalka-like curse of a seductive yet dangerous mermaid. She finds sororal refuge in the town’s other outcast women – Joni, the independent-minded loner who dares to dispense with her body according to whatever advantage it might bring her, and the aforementioned Lilet.

11011When Obet disappears during a fishing expedition, the trio set out to ask help from Coast Guard officials. The townsfolk thereafter initiate a round of malicious gossip whose outcome anyone familiar with social media can expect to end dismally for everyone involved. Upon his return, Obet gets caught up in the cycle of negativity and works out a form of punishment premised on the kind of homosocial interaction observed by the late queer feminist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Between Men, where same-sex male bonding is facilitated by their use of women as objects of exchange.

11011Fajardo’s expertise in handling these admittedly distressing developments lies in his ability to render passion as a crucial element of survival. Obet’s original intent to punish Nerisa via marital rape is misperceived by her as an expression of his ardor. The other menfolk’s savagery is infused with the anxiety they feel because of the depletion of natural resources that they once took for granted. Yet Fajardo also makes clear whose side he champions: in failing to see how the women in their lives are twice victimized – by the forces of uneven global development as well as by patriarchal ideology – they set themselves up for an ironically satisfying bloody retribution.

11011Nerisa’s brand of cautionary feminism may be yesterday’s news to today’s enlightened viewers, but I would argue that its delineation of a more conflicted mentality among villainous characters, as well as its upholding of women’s solidarity premised on their bodily prerogatives, ought to serve as templates for future rural-set sex melodramas. In addition to these revelations, Fajardo deploys a disciplined minimalism that only the ornery would ascribe to the limited resources he had to work with.

11011There’s a breakout lead performance in Cindy Miranda reminiscent of an earlier beauty queen-turned-actor, Elizabeth Oropesa, who here plays Obet’s adoptive mother, as overprotective of him as she behaves cruelly toward his half-sister (another feminist insight into mothering from an essential circle of authors starting with Jessica Benjamin). I also never imagined a time when Aljur Abrenica would be able to command a film screen with any authority, but if our cinema ever runs out of talent to celebrate, that would be the definite indicator that our surrender to forces beyond our control has been completed.

[First published August 23, 2021, as “In Nerisa, Viva Brings Back Regal’s Low-Budget Blockbuster Formula” in The FilAm]

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An Error in the Urian’s Internet Record

Despite how this article may sound at first, I’m really taking a respite from my usual role as the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino’s most (in)famous tormentor. A well-meaning researcher, possibly even a younger MPP member, must have conducted a search of the organization’s prizes for best films for the decade of the 1970s, and included titles that I was certain were roundly rejected during the final deliberation session.

11011So yes, I’m writing because I was involved in the organization during that period, and as I’ve emphasized in several other articles beforehand, the processes I managed to observe during my Manunuri years helped shape my careful approach to canon-forming activities. I might even add that the group seems to have yielded to a latter-day tergiversation in its methodological purpose, but that’s not really our concern right now.

11011How bad is the resultant placement of wrong information? Awful enough to have affected at least two major internet resources, one general (Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, excerpted below) and another film-specific (the Internet Movie Database). I was close to lobbing another stink bomb aimed at my former colleagues, until I thought of looking up possible online causes for the errant material.

Screenshot of Wikipedia‘s “Gawad Urian Award” [sic] page, as of the current time. Click pic to enlarge. To see the IMDb record, search for a film title and click on the “Awards” link.

11011As it turned out (bear with me now), the data was accurate, drawn from a reliable source: an article published January 10, 1980, in Expressweek, the weekend supplement of the Philippines Daily Express, one of many business concerns that coterminated with the Marcos regime. Titled “Ten Best Films of the ’70s,” it came out in a column (on pages 8, 22, & 34 of this specific issue) allotted to the MPP. This would have been one of the group’s then-persistent attempts to encourage its members to write by taking turns filling up pre-assigned periodical space.

11011The column was titled Urian (what else, right), and I could even deduce who wrote it. From the members identified during the survey-taking session, the only active one not mentioned, except as “this writer,” was the late Mario A. Hernando. (Scanned files of the article were uploaded in 2009 to the Pelikula, Atbp. blogspot and are excerpted below.) The only error I recognized in the report was when it attributed the script of Lino Brocka’s Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974) to Orlando Nadres rather than to Mario O’Hara.

Click pic to enlarge. The rest of the post comprises scanned items, like the pic on the left. The typewritten section may have been an attempt at presenting a clearer version of a messy photocopy.

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11011Again, as in most historical problems, the currently available legit-seeming list of the MPP’s choices of the best films of the ’70s isn’t entirely in error: seven of the ten titles were the ones the group officially declared – with no other film missed out. That’s because the members eventually refused to round off the choices to ten. These seven were, in alphabetical order, Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? (Eddie Romero, 1976), Insiang (Brocka, 1976), Itim (Mike de Leon, 1976), Jaguar (Brocka, 1979), Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Brocka, 1975), Nunal sa Tubig (Ishmael Bernal, 1976), and Pagdating sa Dulo (Bernal, 1971).

11011So how could I be certain that the internet list is technically correct yet officially wrong? I could jokily reply that I wasn’t included in the enumeration of participants identified by Hernando, along with other members whom I remember during the final deliberation session but described as absent or inactive in the article. If we resort to a timeline of events, that would make things clearer: although the Expressweek article came out right before the awards ceremony for films released in 1979, no such announcement of “best of the decade” choices was made then.

11011Instead, the decadal prizes were handed out in 1981, during the awards cycle for the movies of 1980, when I became an active member. The full list came out in media reports as well as in two official publications: the program brochure and the first Urian Anthology published much later, plus of course the telecast of the event.[1] That meant that there was enough time – a year, more or less – for a reconsideration of the three other titles in the initial version of the top ten: aside from Tinimbang Ka, these included Behn Cervantes’s Sakada (1976) and Celso Ad. Castillo’s Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak (1978).

11011The process by which we decided on what films to honor turned on their ability to sustain repeat screenings. Pagputi ng Uwak might seem increasingly heavy-handed, but Tinimbang Ka would be unbearably moralistic and reactionary while Sakada would be, shall we say, amusing if it were regarded as a radical-left counterpart of Reefer Madness, minus the latter’s Classical Hollywood expertise. These last two might still be available on DVD (as is Reefer Madness on YouTube) so check them out if you think I’m being unfairly dismissive.

11011In fact, the session where we finalized the entries had an entirely different set of also-rans. I remember Burlesk Queen (1977) emerging as Castillo’s favored entry, and some votes as well for Brocka’s Tubog sa Ginto (1970), Bernal’s Aliw (1979), and get this, Elwood Perez’s Isang Gabi, Tatlong Babae (1974). I must add that any of these titles would still be superior to the original trio, as would a handful of others, some of which unfortunately have been difficult or impossible to locate for some time.

11011Calling for and demonstrating carefulness in canon discourse was only an intermediate aspirational stage for me, however. My idea of an ideal film culture is one in which canonizing concerns become secondary at best – something that the MPP has declared will never happen as long as it’s around. No surprise in how yesterday’s flowers have turned into today’s rotten veggies, but then when they declare that they’re still in bloom,…

Note

[1] The Urian Anthology 1970-1979 (ed. Nicanor G. Tiongson, Quezon City: Manuel L. Morato, 1983) would be the only still-available definitive source of information. Unfortunately the MPP’s collections, numbering one for every decade since its founding, are affordable only to the deep-pocketed – so very progressive of them innit. The seven “best of the ’70s” choices were allotted a page each, but rather than show each title plus immediately adjacent pages, I figured that providing proof of their page numbers should suffice:

Pages v & 397 of the 1970s Urian Anthology. Click pic to enlarge.

11011As shown on page v of the book’s table of contents, the list of films begins on page 397 and ends on page 404, with page 405 announcing the appendices. Page 397 (printed sideways on silver background, for that classy look) heralds the feature and explains how “In 1981, the twelve members of the MPP decided to honor the best films of 1970-1979.” The featured titles per page were as follows: Pagdating sa Dulo, 398; Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, 399; Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon?, 400; Insiang, 401; Itim, 402; Nunal sa Tubig, 403; and Jaguar, 404.

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Mini-Appendices & Works Cited

Mini-Appendix A: Self-Study

There is a wealth of introductory books on film theory, most of which provide an adequate overview of ideas on the subject. I usually recommend Robert Stam’s Film Theory: An Introduction for the author’s acknowledgment of the interests of non-Western peoples; it is accompanied by a supplement, edited by Stam and Toby Miller, titled Film and Theory: An Anthology. The more comprehensive standard collection, continually updated, is Film Theory & Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, now on its 8th edition. A still-useful reference would be the two volumes edited by Bill Nichols titled Movies and Methods: An Anthology. A recommendable process would be to complete an overview, read up on the authors who prove interesting and useful, and proceed to these authors’ book-length output. (Make sure though to still read up on the other authors later.)

11011I would also urge any beginner to provide herself with a beyond-theoretical summary of the field; a sample (that badly needs updating) might be The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, edited by John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. Considered a basic and vital introduction to film aesthetics would be David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Jeff Smith’s Film Art: An Introduction, currently on its 12th edition. Bordwell himself maintains a website that contains his recent articles and updates, as well as an exemplary blog with Thompson (as primary author) titled Observations on Film Art. I mention this to be able to badmouth all the other film-studies websites that fail to display the same degree of rigor and thoroughness, and these are legion. Avoid getting into those (and writing similar crap later – you’ve been warned) by using Thompson and Bordwell’s material as benchmark, and focus instead on reading as many entire books as you can find useful, whether for instruction or pleasure.

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Mini-Appendix B: Deconstruction

Two French names are central in studying deconstruction (unfortunately still far from being fully assimilated in Pinas education, even in grad-school programs): Jacques Derrida, whose principles were initially reduced to methodological approaches by overeager American literary critics, but who persisted in tackling forward-looking global issues through the turn of the millennium; and Michel Foucault, acknowledged as influential by several new progressive activist movements as well as historians grateful for the opportunity to regard the past in new ways.

11011Both have been extensively translated to English, with Foucault generally more readable than early Derrida; both are also well-served by scholars who sought to explicate the deconstructive turn, which requires a grasp of interdisciplinary principles drawn from history, literature, aesthetics, sociology, politics, psychoanalysis, and economics. (Sounds intimidating, but it gets easier as you go along.) Read up on as many introductory materials as you can find, then explore each one’s body of work before forming your own take on deconstruction and its usefulness for social change. You may even reject it, but if your ultimate motive is to return to an older set of ideas, then save yourself the trouble and find other ways (if you can) to defend an order that has become part of the past.

11011Your encounter with deconstructive principles will lead you to certain trends and ideas that may or may not be familiar to you, depending on how updated your educational institution was: binary systems, poststructural frameworks, identity politics, and so on. Unlike preceding systems of thought that mimicked monotheistic religions in claiming the finality and correctness of their premises and prescriptions and abhorred all manner of dissent, deconstruction has the potential of operating without end and leading to relativistic, if not nihilistic, conclusions. It can of course turn into its own form of dogma, open to exploitation by both left and right extremists, so the challenge (recognized early enough by politicized thinkers) is in harnessing it to attain progressive social change. At the very least, the excitement of encountering a new set of ideas for the first time will be yours to claim.

 Works Cited

Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? Volume 1. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style. 2nd ed. Madison, WI: Irvington Way Press, 2018.

Bordwell, David, Kristin Thompson, and Jeff Smith. Film Art: An Introduction. 1979. 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2020.

Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory & Criticism. 1974. 8th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.

David, Joel. “Corrigenda & Problematics for Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic.” Ámauteurish! (June 6, 2020).

———. “The Reviewer Reviewed.” Ámauteurish! (December 12, 2015).

Fowler, H.W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Ed. David Crystal. 1926. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Hechler, David. The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988.

Hill, John, and Pamela Church Gibson, eds. The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. “Directives on the Film Business.” 1922. Volume 42 of Lenin Collected Works, October 1917 – March 1923. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971. 388-89.

Longworth, Karina. Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor. Cahiers du Cinema series. London: Phaidon Press, 2013.

Malko, George. “Pauline Kael Wants People to Go to the Movies: A Profile.” Conversations with Pauline Kael. Ed. Will Brantley. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. 15-30.

McCoy, Alfred W. Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State. New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies series. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.

McMahon, James. “Life Is a Great Screenwriter.” Interview with Francis Ford Coppola. The Guardian (December 5, 2020).

Modern Language Association of America. MLA Handbook. 9th ed. New York: MLA, 2021.

Nichols, Bill, ed. Movies and Methods: An Anthology. Vols. 1 & 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976 & 1985.

Rice, Mark. Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2014.

Simon, John. “A Critical Credo.” Private Screenings: Views of the Cinema of the Sixties. New York: Macmillan, 1967. 1-16.

Smith, Zadie. “That Crafty Feeling.” Columbia University Writing Program lecture. The Believer (June 1, 2008).

Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell 2000.

Stam, Robert, and Toby Miller, eds. Film and Theory: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell 2000.

Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Observations on Film Art. At David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema (September 2006 to the present).

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Persistence of Vision

Your best way to proceed is to start out knowing what kind of final project you’ll be writing, and more important, you have to know what kind of intervention you’re providing for Philippine film scholarship. It will be a critical project, which is why we’re in film criticism (duh), but it will have implications for history, education, archiving, society (if we’re lucky), and so on. This is why you cannot just swoop down on the pop-culture field, armed with some conventional tools provided by long-standing institutions, unless you don’t mind being ignored or getting blasted by some annoyed expert later. From what you have read, watched, and observed in a comprehensive review of your area of concern (including foreign counterparts when applicable), what do you think requires improvement, and how will you be able to provide that improvement?

11011Once you have answered that, you can structure your larger goal(s) and the means by which you can get there. Let me provide a sample template, one that has become feasible for me and a number of other contemporary netizens: a volume (or two) covering the issues confronting audiences and/or practitioners and/or producers in the area of independent and/or mainstream and/or regional (including diasporic) Pinas cinema during the millennium and/or the late celluloid era, raising the issue of aesthetics and/or reception and/or industrial processes using a critical deployment of the ideas of some native or foreign school of criticism.

11011Once you have concretized these elements, you will know as you go along what films will matter and what won’t, what issues to raise, what people and texts to consult, and so on. In the (still-distant) end, you can compile your output, jettison whatever may be extraneous or redundant, organize the material, write an introduction, write short or long texts to bridge adjacent sections, draft a conclusion or epilogue, hire an artist or two and an indexing service (if you’re self-publishing, with funds on tap). You’ll have the volume you planned in the beginning; if you wrote scholarly articles, you’ll have a thesis or dissertation. Not as easy as it sounds, but better than stumbling around hoping to be the best film critic you can be.

11011But what happens if, say, your concern for an area outside critical writing or artistic production becomes too distracting, and promises opportunities for professional advancement as well? The answer should be obvious to anyone who’s already familiar with the principles I laid out in this manual. The practice of critical thinking and the ability to work out creative solutions limit themselves to art and literature only in the minds of the hopelessly old-fashioned. Several former students of mine have opted to work in fields as diverse as talent management, archiving, festival organizing, music, porn performance (you read that right) – and made their areas of practice richer by their presence. Find your vocation, make sure it makes you happy and productive, and keep everyone else posted whenever possible.

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Inklings #3

A final batch of reminders to make sure that complacency won’t be assured of a handy victory.

Be prepared to revise constantly.

After over four decades of writing, mostly intensively, the danger I’m most wary of is starting off without worrying about how I come across. It’s a variation on an earlier anxiety, when I was a practicing journalist for a few years: as a resident film critic, I knew that readers would always pay some attention to what I had to say, so as long as I met my deadlines, no one complained. Imagine my dismay when I started compiling my pieces for book publication for the first time, and realized how extensively I had to revise almost half of them. (For what it’s worth, at least polishing my pieces has always been a fun activity for me.)

11011The worst moment for what in journalism is called lead-writing (“lead” as in lead instrument, not lead battery) came when I had to start drafting my doctoral dissertation. Days of formulating a sentence that sounded both succinct and witty ended with my decision to rethink what I had (sometimes a few pages’ worth already) and start from scratch. It had to acknowledge a non-Filipino readership and draw in political relations between the country that (re)introduced film to its first and only formal colony. Finally, possibly because I’d been confronting the problem for over two weeks, it came instantaneously and unexpectedly: “If the field of American cultural studies were to be reconfigured as topographic terrain, then postcolonial studies would constitute its jungle and the Philippines its heart of darkness.”

11011I wish to avoid marvelous claims for the already-difficult act of writing, but once I had set the sentence down, the rest of the opening chapter virtually wrote itself. Maybe this only applies to me (because it happened earlier in the past, and continued to happen afterward). But certain factors had to be in place before I could make it work: I had to be prepared with a sufficient measure of confidence, with as much of my research material as I can assemble on hand, and have the right balance of pressure to attend to writing with minimal worrying over mundane matters like bills, tax deadlines, house repairs, etc. Unfortunately for the peculiarities of my writing habits, I associate quotidian settings with mental anxiety and physical rest – which means I could only work in newsroom-like places, of which coffeehouses may be the closest contemporary equivalent.[1]

11011You may find that this exact combination of elements would not apply to you. But if you write long enough, you will find certain places and conditions more conducive to your productivity. Once you do, try to find a convenient and affordable version of the locale and make sure you have access to it whenever crunch time nears. Fluidity is the benchmark: a work you sweated over while writing will (more often than not) cause the reader to slog through the output in turn; something you felt like you lightly tossed off could also induce the reader to relax while going through it. As long as you made sure that you put in effort where it mattered – in preparing for the writing process – you should have less to worry about, and maybe even enjoy writing your piece.[2]

11011The earlier pointers I brought up would have told you how you could develop a welcome argument. If it’s too new or involved, provide the equivalent of a road map in the beginning, after announcing the crisis you want to tackle (yup, I used crisis, a word from narrative writing – just in case we forget again: any difference in these writing modes is artificial; the crisis of a plot would be, in academic terms, its problematique).

11011What I could present as good news to you would be: if you feel you’ve already completed a complex and thorough presentation, you can opt to end there and then. A “cold” ending is better than an unnecessary summary, as anyone who’s ever had to read theses or dissertations published as books, whose editors failed to call for revisions, might recall. On the other hand, if you want to leave a longer-lasting impression, go for a kicker. Insightful humor would be best, or even an unexpected downer if you feel you’ve been too light-hearted throughout already.

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Submit or upload your text, then attempt further revisions.

You may think I’m merely fastidious, but you’re wrong: I’m hyperfastidious. Unless you can afford an excellent editor, self-editing (including the soul-crushing act of close self-copyediting) will be the way to go whenever and wherever you decide to publish something you’ve written. When the publication has its own editor and she realizes that you can do as well or even better, you’ll enable her to focus on matters specific to the publication. A good editor will be able to create (pardon the buzzword) synergy out of your writing and the publication’s agenda, but if you’ve already maintained that consideration in your writing, you can hope for the even better type of editor – one who’ll leave your submitted text alone.

11011Before you reach this point where you can continually critique and revise (let’s call this process C&R) your material after you submit it, you need to guarantee yourself that you already C&R’d it at least once, preferably a few times, beforehand. (I know, I started with the bad news, then announced the worse one afterward – a bit of sadism I enjoy inflicting occasionally.) If you find yourself C&Ring as you write, you don’t have to hold yourself back; just be aware that you’re slowing yourself down, and try the alternative – drafting everything first before conducting C&R – to see which strategy works better for you. In my case, I can tolerate a mild attempt at C&R during writing, since lead writing (see the previous entry) already involves an intensive C&R process.

11011Once you’ve finished drafting and revising, if you have the luxury of time, tear yourself away from what you wrote. Sleep if you haven’t, have a meal and/or a pleasant intoxicant, hang with friends, lose yourself in music or fiction, exercise, indulge in some mild consensual pleasure – whatever you need to forget the trauma of writing. I did go into psychoanalytic matters, because guess what, you have to go back to it yourself in an even more neurotic state. Once you’ve forgotten what you wrote, prepare yourself anew, this time by imagining that you’ll be reading something that someone else wrote. Then reread, and C&R. If you’ll be uploading to a blog, then you ought to know that you can make changes on your own post, no matter how long ago you placed it there.

11011I’ll provide a practical method that works for people who started writing when most typewriters were manual because only rich offices could afford electric contraptions. It proceeds from the insight that your text on a printed page looks different. A printout of your manuscript would be a step closer to its published form, even if it will come out digitally, if only because it will not have the same appearance as when you drafted it. I realized once more how invaluable this step was for me, when I retyped, copyedited, and uploaded my out-of-print books on my blog, and occasionally read through articles at random in order to further correct any errors I overlooked. Some time later, I had to print out everything I placed there. That printout turned out to have at least one error per page, sometimes far more than I could ever allow myself. So if you’ve never printed out anything you drafted, try it once and see if it better helps you assume the readerly function when you C&R yourself.

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Own your errors.

The unreflective film critic, after years and years on the job, will finally sigh and go, There’s no such thing as a perfect film after all. Aren’t we lucky to work in writing, a medium where perfection is possible? “Unreflective” was the word I used: there can be no such thing as a perfect anything. Fortunately, as an atheist, I preclude myself from answering, well what about god? Because, as supreme being, I never believed in deluding myself about my own perfection. So there.

11011We are at the historical stage where Eastern philosophical principles, though still formally unacknowledged in the West, have finally managed to prevail over the old-time tendencies to abhor contradictions and seek so-called stable conditions. The more ambitious a system is, the likelier it is to contain weaknesses or flaws. So it would be no reflection on your hard work and integrity for anyone to definitively argue, sooner or later, that something you wrote can be subjected to a process of deconstruction.

11011“Own your errors” means being a good sport when someone points them out – or better yet, pointing them out yourself, to yourself, and revising your work if you still can. But if all that involves is self-flagellation, then signing up for a rural Holy Week ritual would be more efficient. Once more, take the longer look. We should not be after the avoidance of mistakes, since the act of learning from errors, especially published ones, commits us to doing better or else. Ask yourself now, if you haven’t done so earlier, what your larger project is. You should always have one, and much as I hate using the modifier, it would be appropriate in this context: your long-term goal should be a worthy one.

11011Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in the social-network game of amassing as much positive feedback for your pieces as you can wangle. Determine the worthy purpose first, so that what you write is actually building up toward it. If you’ve been in graduate school and getting world-class advice, you’ll recognize what I’m saying. You don’t start your program like a bachelor’s degree aspirant, hoping to be guided toward a topic and shown how to successfully pull it off. On the other hand, if you’re in a graduate program where your final research project has remained amorphous for the most part, never interrogated during the application stage, note well what I’ll say right now: you’re being conned; while claiming to be compassionate, the faculty are taking advantage of your presence to finagle the higher honoraria they’ll be getting from grad-level classes and exams and defenses, so the longer you stay the happier they’ll be, and they can always dump you later if you don’t meet whatever standards they claim to be upholding.

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Careful with claims you make.

Not a vital piece of advice, since this should be obvious to anyone who presumes to write and publish anything. I claimed to have ten entries and ended with eleven, possibly even twelve (which is something I always do when providing lists of anything). I never claimed to be an expert in math, so when this sort of thing happens to you, you can forgive yourself. I never claimed to be an expert film critic either, but that possibly comes from superstitious observation: over the decades, the few people I managed to observe asserting themselves in the practice tended to crash and burn, for a variety of reasons. For that reason, I never regarded hubris as a friend, except for comic or camp purposes.

11011A few other things I make no apologies for: aspiring to figure out the popularity of current releases without recourse to the official critics’ high-handed call to “enlighten” the local audience via reviews and awards; supplementing my insights with what little anthropological information I can uncover via casual and anonymized conversations with actual mass-audience members; catching myself from declaring that a project should never have been released, with the ethical reminder that most of the people who worked on it were working-class wage earners; championing practitioners who’ve been handed a raw deal by the country’s tastemongers, whose self-serving antics I’ve seen up close and for which my turn to gossip writing might prove useful eventually.

11011When you set yourself against a prevalent trend or two, people whose interests feel threatened will find ways to mount hate campaigns. I’ve seen acquaintances crumple or fight back, but as a media practitioner, I also recognize that such hostility can be helpful. If you’re certain of your own assessment and have the confidence of sound analysis, then any opponent will have to begin with the foundations you’ve laid out (which means, if they’re right, you’ll be able to correct yourself). When they proceed from a position of hysterical anger, that’s a sign that they have nothing substantial to present, and that some covert corruption may be at play. It would be great to command respect across a wide spectrum of the public – great, but boring; better to have negative reactions from people who’re saddled with issues that your output provokes to antagonism. The contrast between mercy and meanness would be instructive for an observant public.

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Notes

[1] An even weirder twist for me is the way that self-rewards function: completing (a draft of) a project is its own reward, so anything extra I promised myself afterward will feel anticlimactic; besides, a sufficiently ambitious project is never really ever finished, so a certain amount of anxiety will always impinge on my enjoyment. On the other hand, I discovered that rewards acquired prematurely, timed during periods when I know I’ll be facing writer’s blocks, will induce me to buckle down and work even harder, out of sheer guilt. Hey if it works for you, then it works with (maybe only) you so don’t let anyone else convince you otherwise.

[2] See the end of the very first entry in this list of pointers (titled “There is no such thing as too much preparation”), for a point made by US film performer Meryl Streep. Several other successful pop performers make the same assertion in their interviews.

What about my actual motives?

No shame in admitting you’re really into film activity to meet media celebrities. It doesn’t give me any thrill, but I don’t see anything wrong with yielding to fandom, so long as you admit as much whenever it becomes necessary, and either steer clear of public-relations work or drop commentary writing altogether if PR proves too lucrative to ignore. Then again you’re reading this to pick up any useful tip from me, so here it is: find out if your colleagues are still spellbound by the rejection of authorial intent, as stipulated by (old) New Criticism. This means that an author’s purpose is never supposed to be the ultimate measure of correct textual analysis. There’s a difference of course between determining the author’s motive and uncovering the exigencies of creative work, which to me is indispensable to critical practice. My solution is simply to never announce that I consulted any practitioner in a project I’m working on. The guiding principle here, as you may have guessed by now, is that when you find your peers are ideologically … slow, leave them behind. This is one rare instance where not divulging the complete truth will work in favor of enhancing your critical output.

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Inklings #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Watch and read the necessary texts more than once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You call these writing tips?

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

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Inklings #1

What I will be drawing up will be ten matters to keep in mind. Following these will ensure that you’re on the right track, since I came by some of these insights from trial and error and use these as a way of making sure that I remain within a zone of confidence while still allowing myself some leeway for productivity.[1]

There is no such thing as too much preparation.

This applies to everything in life, not just in one’s profession. But it’s a simple matter to overlook when dealing with so-called easy material. In fact, people who study everyday “fun” things – food, sex, recreation, pets – will be the first ones to tell you that the ease with which they can be apprehended is misleading. From teaching for the past decade-plus at what is essentially an institute of technology, I’ve had several exchanges with instructors and students in engineering and the sciences who wind up confessing that they never imagined that film studies could be so fiendishly complicated a challenge.

11011Just as important is the issue of what preparation is the right kind. I’ve had students assigned to complete a semestral project laboring for the first few weeks over what title they wanted to use – when they explained their problem to me, I told them to just go with “Untitled.” Other students I was asked to advise were incapable of tearing themselves away from such long-debunked frameworks like anti-contraception or the validity of Ayn Rand’s ideas or the efficacy of underground “water veins” for health treatments; usually these were imparted to them by well-meaning but horribly incompetent parents, so be careful what you pass on if you’re some impressionable person’s adult authority.[2] I’ve also been unable to forget a scholar who came all the way from a tropical island, only to complain that his host country’s food was too spicy and the weather was getting too cold (with winter still a few months away), plus his war-trained colleagues were too masculinist.

11011Always, the common denominator in these cases is an excessive sense of privilege that blinds people into believing that no other questions about their specific set of convictions need to be entertained. The students’ influential figures – family, school, church, sometimes even government – misguidedly assured them that they were already equipped for some misplaced reason: they were rich enough, pedigreed enough, “blessed” enough, and so on, so that anything they tossed out in public deserved to elicit gratitude for their sheer effort.[3]

11011So we may as well begin with the right attitude for this kind of undertaking. In one word, humility. When you think you’ve done your best, be prepared to accept if someone else did better, and take a long hard look at your output vis-à-vis the superior one: inevitably, that one will have had better preparation behind it. Within the circles of doctoral degree-holders, we find this syndrome as well. Most so-called doctors of philosophy (mediocre ones, by definition) will throw their weight around and claim that they don’t need to know more than they do because some higher institution accredited them already; but the very best ones will speak truthfully in saying that they still have a long way to go, even after retirement. The value of the doctorate is in teaching where and how to seek knowledge, how to validate and evaluate it, and how to deploy it in scholarship; in the age of Google and Wikipedia, only unstable personalities will claim to be stable geniuses who’ll know everything.

11011A final observation I’ll be making is that writing, like any other profession, always presents the danger of roteness, when you achieve a level of competence that enables you to produce work according to a set schedule, format, vocabulary, etc. Nothing wrong if it’s a bread-and-butter activity, and if you made sure that no one else can excel on the same level in the first place. I would argue from long experience, however, that what can be fulfilling about writing – even critical writing – is that every challenge met (successfully or otherwise) is an entirely new experience every time: “I have a smattering of things I’ve learned from different teachers … [but] nothing I can count on, and that makes it more dangerous. But then the danger makes it more exciting.”[4] In that respect, writing is really as much a performing art as anything else, a point I hope to maintain at several points throughout this manual.

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Start with the long view: history, theory, long-form study.

This is just the beginning of the paradox I mentioned, where something that should be easy because everyone enjoys it requires more intensive preparation compared with some less-appreciated subjects.[5] Many students of film love to show off technical buzzwords that are now readily accessible in online glossaries – montage, lenses, light sources, transition effects, performative style, and so on. A few others will come prepared with terms like actualities, Classical Hollywood, New Wave (or its foreign-language equivalent), and any number of isms – neorealism, Expressionism, feminism, etc.

11011These should suffice for any global citizen, but news alert: we are not just “any global citizen.” People of the Philippines bear certain distinctions that mark them off from other population groups – first Far East Asian colony of any European power, first (and only) formal US colony, first (claimed) anticolonial revolution in Asia, and so on. And the invention and propagation of cinema is closely tied in with this history. It is not some benign or neutral technology that lends its usefulness to anyone interested in facilitating social change. Film history books will say that the first governmental use of film was Vladimir Lenin’s declaration that it should be deployed (by the Soviet Union) to promote international socialism, but how many people, even in the Philippines, are aware that Americans were already using it – and declaring its usefulness – to convince people in the US as well as the Philippine Islands that American colonization was morally justified and needed by our ancestors, the very victims of imperialist expansion?[6]

11011The next obvious question is something that’s been so neglected – because it’s been unasked, but that’s no excuse. What value then should we hold for a medium that has also proved helpful for our own purposes of change? (One, we should add, whose imperial country’s representatives faced censorship threats from their own officials when they produced films in the colony.) Are we really the ones, or the only ones, entitled to its use? What happens when our own audiences refuse to watch the movies our artists so painstakingly planned and funded and completed, only to discover that foreigners were more receptive to them?

11011Beyond this last still-vexed question, we have an impasse regarding the status of theory. At some point in the past, right after the people-power revolt in 1986, the local intellectual community was all agog over the emergence of all the “post” theorizing, starting with poststructuralism, proceeding to postmodernism, postfeminism, postracism, postgender … until someone came up with post-theory. And of course, what we know today as film has really been post-film for some time now: celluloid was phased out in Pinas even earlier than in most other countries, while the debates over film specificity (the issue of what technique was essential to defining film) were “answered” with some finality in the 1950s in France.[7]

11011As you will see, and probably be alarmed by, there is no excuse to be as unaware of these issues regarding film and the theories it raised, as there is no reason to be ignorant of how film (as well as preceding media like photography and print, and succeeding media like radio and TV) was used by all the colonizing forces that occupied the country: the Spaniards (who introduced it, during the eve of the execution of Jose Rizal), the Americans (who reintroduced it and made it a social and industrial institution), even the Japanese. Next time you’re tempted to crow about “film for social change,” imagine first the voice of Donald Trump countering, “You should be glad we bigly developed that unpresidented medium and made it available for the rest of the world, instead of claiming it for yourself. Sad.”

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Look inward at your personal motive(s).

All social intercourse necessarily involves a certain degree of narcissism, so it won’t be useful denying that fact or decrying its presence in others. It bears repeating, though: narcissism only becomes a liability when it’s enabled by privilege – of any kind, even a justified one. I know, a prominent local film authority once went on record to say that film critics should have the proper academic qualification, by which he meant, ideally, a doctorate in film. Bad news: I have one, and I never assumed that I was qualified, even when I still had to get one and knew I’d be able to, if the opportunity presented itself. For all our complaints about American personalities, one of the best cultural takeaways I had was that, in any “best” institution, people called everyone else by the nicknames they prefer.

11011What this means is that you might have enough of a record to demand respect from everyone else, but if you stumble, you stumble, and you can’t expect anyone to say she saw you walk straight unless you bribe or bamboozle her. The informality of American culture ensures this: we called everyone by their first names because if they were professors, they all had doctorates; if they didn’t, they could probably earn it eventually; and even if they already had their degrees, someone else will always be able to come along and excel as well as or better than they did, so they were always aware that they had to constantly prove themselves.

11011You can imagine how this worked out for me in an East-Asian Confucian situation, where people always had to defer to others for being old, or male, or wealthy, or superior in position, and so on. A few people would insist on their privilege, but the outcome was always predictable: these turned out to be the same people who’d never be able to boost their names beyond the degrees that they already had.

11011We also have to mention here the special case of critics who aspire to make a name so that they can be accepted as auteur personalities. A film critic is always-already an auteur personality, but we’re talking about the example of people from an era when the medium was still insufficiently developed, so it was always possible for an aesthetician to articulate a vision for improving film practice, then engage in that same area in order to illustrate her point.

11011If that’s what motivates you, well and good if you own up to it, but keep in mind a few things: first, when you want to talk critically about someone’s command of audiovisual language, better be ready to prove your own expertise in the present language you’re using; second, success in crossing-over will not be predictable even so – Philippine cinema is littered with the figurative corpses of competent film critics who wound up with less-than-impressive movies; third, cynically motivated criticism, where you provide mediocre and/or slapdash output because you’re biding yourself for the big industry break, will result in readers so turned off that they won’t want to have anything to do with you.[8] Again, if you’re privileged enough not to care, go ahead and write what you want and give yourself the break you think you deserve; but don’t be surprised if no one is impressed by the results.

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Insist on the use of basic study tools.

“Basic” is always relative, but assuming you’re a layperson, these refer to such methods as research, critical analysis, and scientific review. These sound academic, and they are, at least in origin, but people who’ve been working in scholarly disciplines long enough already own the key to making them work for anyone. It has to do with the previous bit of advice – knowing yourself – and making sure, in the face of objections from all over, that this is exactly what you want to do. When that happens, all the negative responses you’ll hear from people forced into the activity (too many things to read and watch, too much theory to work through, too much drafting and revision to undertake, and so on) will not matter. What’s work to others will be fun for you.

11011And if you think you’ll be “rewarding” yourself by promising that you’ll shift to creative processes later, here’s some bad news that should really be good news except for cynics and cheats: you’ll still continue needing the same tools I mentioned, though not in the same way obviously, and with a different form of end-result. But go ahead, look for the best art practitioners in the field you think you’ll excel in, determine how much productive discourse their work can engender, and see if you can argue that critical thinking had nothing whatsoever to do with it. The less-informed commentators will fall back on the usual magical explanations – that the artist’s a genius, touched by inspiration, lucky to possess good genes, and so on. It’s fine to dwell on fantastic speculations once in a while, but you’ll be fooling yourself if you think great work appears despite the absence of adequate materials that also prove useful in exercises as mundane as scholarly research and publication.

11011At this stage, we may as well turn to the conclusion that’s been obvious to anyone who’s practiced in productivity that makes use of critical and creative principles. Word of warning: this will prove so unthinkable that whenever I venture to mention it, I get responses that range from objections to violent denunciations. To be honest, it’s usually other academics who feel behooved to register their disagreement, probably because their profession is premised on (the artificiality of) specialization. The only fact I can state in my defense is that it works for me, and for the artists that I count as the best we can identify around us.

11011The point I’m about to mention is simple: there is no difference between criticism and artistic output. This should be obvious to anyone who regards any kind of writing as literature, but you will find Filipino critics who claim to be fully invested in praxis, who’ll nevertheless say otherwise. I’ve been fortunate though in collaborating with artists and writers who share the same regard for these essential values. This entire text is premised on that belief, so the only real choice for people conflicted about the usefulness of rules imposed in certain professional contexts like newsrooms or classrooms is to regard the prospective result as just another literary genre.

11011The formal requirements for criticism, like the ones that apply to poetry, fiction, dramatic writing, and so on, are simply sets of rules that any serious practitioner looks into opportunities to challenge and possibly overturn. It bears repeating here, that a teacher who prescribes a fixed approach to writing style is in fact ensuring that none of her students will be able to surpass her, just as she never will be able to surpass herself; although in the end, I always hold the students accountable for studying criticism without being critical enough to see when they’ve been trapped in someone else’s self-imposed strictures.

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Notes

[1] Acknowledging here the influence of the excellent lecture, “That Crafty Feeling,” given by Zadie Smith at the Columbia University Writing Program, where she admits her reluctance to prescribe approaches to writing, and instead proffers a list of markers that she observes when she writes her novels.

[2] I was still in US graduate school when the tide began to turn against the so-called Satanic Panic trend in North America. This began in the 1980s when day-care centers had proliferated to accommodate children of working mothers. Within a cultural atmosphere of dread and paranoia fed by televangelists who preached about the literal existence of angels and demons, parents, social workers, and investigators “interviewed” children and convinced them that they had repressed memories of their teachers engaging them in devil worship that involved sex orgies, bestiality, human sacrifice, and similar other outlandish claims. Several day-care centers had to shut down, their personnel languishing in prison despite a complete absence of evidence. For a comprehensive account, see David Hechler’s The Battle and the Backlash. A number of cases were dismissed and overturned in the 1990s. A direct line may be drawn from this scandal to the conspiratorial QAnon claims of the Donald Trump presidency.

[3] Same reason why I tend to gravitate toward rural and university-belt schools, where there’s less of a hurdle in reorienting young people toward more rational and scientific thought processes. Unfair as it may sound, my once-regular exercise in clearing out cobwebs in my mind’s chambers, prior to starting another academic year, saddled me with impatience in instructing people who still have to be taught this basic exercise in mental hygiene.

[4] Meryl Streep, as quoted by Karina Longworth (12).

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[5] The only review of my book that I felt compelled to answer was ironically an appreciative one, that nevertheless complained that I had a “penchant for unfamiliar words and ambiguous phrases” and named terms that were actually current in film, performance, and cultural studies. I was admittedly harsh but I was probably on alert regarding the implicit attitude of “why give me a hard time when it’s only about movies?” See “The Reviewer Reviewed,” which I posted in the Extras section’s FWIW subsection of Ámauteurish!

[6] See Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s “Directives on the Film Business” in Lenin Collected Works. For a detailed account of Dean Worcester’s photographic and film documentations in the Philippines as well as the New York Times’s enthusiastic reception, see Mark Rice’s Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands; a fuller context is provided in Alfred W. McCoy’s Policing America’s Empire. Note that despite the term “Pinas” in the title of this manual, I do not make a claim for any distinct Filipinoness in what I write, beyond the fact that I identify primarily as a scholar of the country’s pop culture.

[7] Several essays by André Bazin, notably “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” “The Myth of Total Cinema,” “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” and “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage” – all in the first volume of What Is Cinema? – are regarded as the first in a long line of often contentious give-and-takes on the issue. David Bordwell, namechecked in a mini-appendix, regards Bazin’s theorizations as central to what he termed a “dialectical version” of film history, in On the History of Film Style (46-82).

[8] The only instance of a Filipino film critic successfully making a transition to filmmaking turned out to be triumphant at both ends: Ishmael Bernal had been publishing superior reviews during the late New Criticism period, with his other critical colleagues (somewhat dubiously) organizing themselves into the critics circle I mentioned earlier. Further disclosure: I once accepted an invitation to join this same circle, early in my own stage as nationally published writer. On the other hand, if you intend to maintain equal or stronger presence in scholarship, then my advice is to steer clear of the national university’s misguided example of granting tenure and promotion points for “creative” output (all the while complaining about the humanities faculty’s paucity in research), and look more closely into screen media practice research. Sometimes abbreviated as SMPR, this area of study is fairly recent, although unfortunately its rationale and methods fall outside the scope of this manual.

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But where are the shortcuts?

The short and sweet answer is: there are none. The downside of academic preparation becoming possible for aspiring film practitioners is that graduates get the impression that essential lessons from the past have been codified and handed down to them. But the existential condition is necessarily already absent. When people once envisioned a career premised on film expertise, without the benefit of formal studies, they had to draw up their own personal programs and find ways of identifying possible limits and loopholes in what they studied – and seeking ways to resolve those problems. This explains why a majority of earlier practitioners were lacking in many ways, compared to the pleasing and predictable consistency of applicants since the introduction of film-studies programs in the country. It also explains why (the lesser number of) gifted oldtimers tended to have career longevity, compared to the contemporary wealth of impressive debut outputs that wind up their makers’ best work, if not their only one. In effect, the most accomplished among the Golden-Age practitioners had no recourse except (but then also had enough time) to achieve the equivalent of master’s degrees before they presumed to knock on history’s doors. Given the state of graduate programs in Pinas, though, I wouldn’t say that completing a formal one today would provide a useful answer either.

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Turning Point

Caught up in the planning and implementation of book and media projects that university tenure finally enabled me to pursue, I realized only with the approach of my retirement that my work, and concomitantly my output as Pinoy film commenter, is about to end in a few years. I’ve been able to witness the early part of my film-writing activity – consisting of reviews of recent releases, as well as the middle portion of my series of output, comprising canonical exercises – being replicated in film publications as well as in blogs and even social-media posts. I’m still awaiting a critical mass, pun intended, to take up research-based historicizing, theorizing, and critical revision, plus an upgrade of what we might unfairly regard as “lower” forms like gossip writing and celebrity analysis.

11011But if anyone tells me I should begin to prepare to accept the end of my contributions and witness how succeeding generations build up, change, or demolish them, all I’ll say is that I started doing so already. I’ll still need to complete a couple of vital book projects and perhaps a memoir, and prepare for my idea of a hedonistic retirement where I can pick out what I want to write on and attend to it at the pace I feel would be most workable, while mentoring some of the better talents around if they feel that they could be productive with my help, without any promise from me of institutional rewards.

11011Meanwhile the inevitable question: are there tips for writing film commentary that I can leave behind? Something that any layperson can go over and then approach film writing better prepared than before she read what I wrote (namely, as it turns out, this manual). I wish the answer were as simple as a yes or no, but only partly because of my academic orientation, I must say: it’s both a yes and a no. What I mean by this is: I cannot give writing tips other than anything that might arise from direct experience. Which means, that kind of advice will not be useful unless you find yourself in exactly the same situation I once had, dealing with the same personalities during that same period. You can of course watch out for analogous or comparable setups and use any of these lessons as guide, but it will be better to see if another approach will work better so you can be more assured of your capabilities and have something to write about afterward.

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