Manoy Takes His Leave

The sudden end to the long and productive life of actor-director Eddie Garcia was unnecessarily tragic, with corporate negligence compounding the foolhardiness of an artist too game to retire at an age when most other people would have completed two or more entire careers. The evaluation of netizens is on the mark in this case: Garcia’s willingness to take risks, typical of his approach throughout an extended and colorful career, should have been tempered by the studio that had apparently bet on countering the most successful serial program of the moment by showcasing, among other novelties, the physical agility of the country’s oldest active action performer.[1]

First appearing as a contract performer by the most star-obsessed among the 1950s First Golden Age studios, Garcia’s unconventional attractiveness positioned him a degree apart from full star stature: he could occasionally headline a project, but never the romantic leads that required the Euro-mestizo prettiness claimed by any number of now-forgotten actors. Having decided to make the most of a range of skills that allowed him to dabble in genres as disparate as horror, action, comedy, even soft-core melodrama, as leading man or villain, he settled on making himself indispensable as a competent ensemble performer who could draw on reserves of brilliance in case the role happened to demand it of him.

His filmography of over 650 film appearances (a possible local record) attests to the success of his strategy, but he had a higher purpose in mind: to be able to carve out a parallel career as film director. His choices were informed by the same principle of populist entertainment that he maintained for his acting career. One can see how his efforts could be occasionally penalized for being too mainstream, in a system that prized (then as now) “independent” efforts: when his best film, Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig? (1987), came out, the Filipino critics’ group declared that no film during that year was worth considering for its annual prizes. Saan Nagtatago has since then been regarded as one of the high points in Pinoy melodrama.

Observers were also prone to concluding that his expertise as director accounted for his actorly acumen. This may be safely accepted as conventional wisdom, in conjunction with his pronouncement that his original dream was to be a military official. His work ethic, arriving about an hour ahead of call time, lines already committed to memory, was typical of performers of his generation, and those of theater-trained actors even today. Yet there were fault lines in this ultra-professional approach, and it occasionally showed up in his filmmaking record. He directed (and won his first directorial award for) the second biographical campaign movie of Ferdinand Marcos, Pinagbuklod ng Langit (1969). When later, the then-newly founded directors’ guild declared a boycott of the film projects of Gabby Concepcion, Garcia defied guild president Lino Brocka by accepting a Concepcion assignment for Viva Films.

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Ironically, Garcia’s acting projects with Brocka constituted his most rewarding body of work. He had memorable roles in the first few films of Ishmael Bernal, showed up in some of Eddie Romero’s more ambitious projects, and endeared himself to camp fans in the sex-comedies of Danny L. Zialcita. But as the most politically committed Filipino director, Brocka required effective representations of political villainy, and no one delivered the goods as well as Garcia, in a series of acclaimed works: Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974), Miguelito: Batang Rebelde (1985), and Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (1990), among others. Their collaboration was cemented early on, in Brocka’s second film assignment and first serious work, Tubog sa Ginto (1970), still arguably the highest peak in male Philippine film performance.

The mystery in Tubog lies in how Brocka managed to create his best queer film during the period when he still had to come around as an openly queer artist. His later “out” movies, notably Macho Dancer (1988), pale in comparison to the early work. People tended to ascribe some credit to Garcia, to his admission that he conducted intensive research among colleagues in the industry, plus his earlier attempt in essaying a comic version of the closeted authority in Kaming mga Talyada (1962), affirmed by his subsequent willingness to tackle similar roles (comic and dramatic) even in his old age – including his last film assignment, Rainbow’s Sunset (2018). To be honest, the results were always mixed and not as definitive as Tubog itself; in a comic ensemble work, Mga Paru-parong Buking (1985), he was upstaged predictably by Bernardo Bernardo and unexpectedly by George Estregan.

Eight years ago, in one of those confluences that make pop culture an endlessly fascinating phenomenon for its devotees, several identifiably masculine actors admitted to past same-sex experiences. One of them was Garcia, who said that his own episode occurred early, when he was 15, as part of a quest to determine his own preference. One could look at the group of confessors and note for the record that they were all extremely accomplished performers. Yet the measure of the audience’s distractability, as well as Garcia’s own volatility, is that most people remembered his queer performances, but not his own acknowledgment of the roots of his appreciation. All in all an occasionally spotty record then, but generously strewn with gems worth treasuring: rarely have we been so lucky.

Note

[1] In the wake of the tragedy, the studio, GMA-7, announced that its series, Rosang Agimat, was shelved. The new program was intended to challenge ABS-CBN’s long-dominant Ang Probinsyano, where Garcia had (ironically) also been a featured player.

[First published June 23, 2019, in the The FilAm]

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Meta-Kritika! (Ámauteurish turns 5!)

Launched on June 13, 2014, Ámauteurish! observes its fifth year of more-or-less continuous existence and offers its readers the chance to own a signed copy of author Joel David’s latest book publication, Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic. How? By joining the Philippines’s first Meta-Kritika Contest. Here are the rules:

  1. The contest is open to college undergraduate students (regardless of nationality) in Philippine universities. Associate or vocational students, foreign students on exchange in a Philippine university (or Filipino students on exchange abroad), and out-of-school youth who have completed high-school-level education or its equivalent, will all also be eligible, though not people who have completed at least one bachelor’s degree.
  2. The prospective contestant should select one readily available current or past Filipino feature film, as well as one piece of published commentary by any author (regardless of nationality) on the film; said commentary should be a review, at least, although it may also be a longer critique. “Filipino feature film” refers to any film dramatization with distinctive Philippine issues, whether released locally or overseas. “Published commentary” may include material uploaded on the internet, excluding audio-only or audiovisual presentations. Only one film may be paired with one commentary, and each participant may submit only one entry.
  3. The contestant should provide critical commentary on the film in relation to the commentary on it. In effect, she or he should respond to the film as well as the review or criticism written previously on the same film.
  4. The contestant should complete at least two single-spaced pages, but no more than five pages of writing, using a form that may be downloaded here. Notes and citations may be elaborated via footnotes, if necessary, using the Modern Language Association’s writing guidelines. Entries may be submitted in English, Filipino, or any variation of Taglish; commentaries may also be originally printed in any of the specified languages.
  5. The contest entry should be in MS Word format (as either a .doc or a .docx file) and should be submitted as an email attachment, with “Meta-Kritika Contest submission” in the subject line. The contestant’s name should also be the file name of the entry.
  6. Entries will be evaluated by a specially constituted Board of Judges, using standard nonfiction criteria (accuracy, fairness, originality, expressive creativity). The Board’s decision will be considered final.
  7. All entries will be treated as shared copyright material by the contestant and Ámauteurish Publishing. Winning entries and excerpts from the other contributions may be published in a special folio by Ámauteurish! at the publisher’s discretion.
  8. Writers of the best five entries, as determined by the Board of Judges, will be sent one copy each of Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic, signed by the book author.
  9. The deadline for entries is midnight (Philippine Standard Time) of October 31, 2019. Winners will be announced in Ámauteurish! on or before December 1, 2019.

Some tips: Resist the inclination to prove your superiority over the film and/or article that you’ll be selecting; avoid as well providing a mere summary of the (film and published) texts. For this reason, it may be better for you to pick out texts that you feel can challenge your analytical ability. There will also be a wide variety of possible responses beyond agreeing or disagreeing with the material. Assume that your readers are familiar or will familiarize themselves with your material, so there won’t be any need to extensively synopsize or summarize what you’re writing about. The minimum expectation is that you will be triangulating your own position vis-à-vis the film and the article. Reading up and watching related materials will ensure that you will be better prepared for the exercise.

Possibly the most difficult challenge of all would be to try maintaining a light, conversational tone, rather than a hectoring or argumentative voice. Spend some time on the opening section of your article; often, achieving the right stylistic mix in raising the issue (just one, please), identifying the texts to discuss, and plotting your own course in pursuit of your position will already help speed you along, once you’ve nailed it. Try anticipating at least one other critical voice in your head, pointing out possible weaknesses in your argument, so that you’ll be able to ensure a rigorous output for yourself.

After completing your draft (preferably using this template), pause long enough until you feel distant from it, then go over it mercilessly, looking for ways to improve it further. Remember that, in writing on material that required technical skills to be expertly created, your own technique will also be subjected to inspection; make sure to use software checkers for spelling and grammar, if available, as well as any available source (starting with the internet, which you should also approach critically) for fact-checking.

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Auteurs & Amateurs: Toward an Ethics of Film Criticism (Lecture Version)

Many thanks to the International Association for Ethical Literary Criticism for inviting me to deliver a plenary lecture on ethical film criticism. I may not also be everyone’s idea of a film critic, especially if you bump into me during more casual occasions than a literary conference. In my own feeble defense, I would begin by mentioning that what we might count as the basic output of a film critic, the movie review, was one of my earliest articles as a campus journalist, over forty years ago (David, “Birds of Omen” 43-45) – but let’s keep that scandalous detail to ourselves, shall we.

Since then, my odyssey as a Filipino film critic was marked by a few firsts: first fresh college graduate to be invited to the Filipino film critics circle, first former student activist to work in the Marcos dictatorship’s film agency, first and only graduate of the country’s undergraduate film program (my second degree actually), first to publish a local prizewinning book in film criticism, first Filipino to be accepted to a doctoral film program, first director of the national university’s film institute; although one last first – to teach a graduate course in pornography and feminism – will again be probably not to everyone’s liking or appreciation.

I take this personalized narrative-based mode because the lessons I learned about ethical practice in film criticism were hard-earned and initially defiant of then-existing values and ideas. But before we move on to what those insights might be, allow me to point out a problem, more of a kink really, in the expression “ethical practice in film criticism.” What I mean by this is that, contrary to commercial practitioners’ expectations, and in line with the thrust of the conference, film criticism always-already presumes ethical practice. This would be its most vital, though also most obvious, resemblance to literary criticism.

I may also need to make clear this early that I depart from the premise of what we term ethical literary criticism in a crucial manner. One way of understanding why this distinction must be made is in the industrial definition of film production as opposed to literary activity. To better comprehend the comparison, let’s consider each sphere during the recent past when media technologies had yet to begin converging in digital formats, and were therefore distinct from one another. In literature, the entire manufacturing activity comprising the use of all types of printing and copying machines, plus binding and distribution systems, can never be fully equated with actual literary production. A significant, unknowable, but possibly greater amount of literature is necessarily created privately, almost entirely by individuals, and an invaluable amount resides in the collection and maintenance of written material, not all of it printed in the still-contemporary sense.

Film, on the other hand, is emblematic of what we should really call the post-literary mass medium, in the sense that without the presence of an industry, it would not exist – except, at best, as theater. From beginning to end of the filmmaking process, one or more machines are operated by technical specialists, even in the case of the simplest possible type of production, the home movie. In fact the most distinct type of movie we recognize today, the film event, is premised on industrial spectacularization, with its megabudget appropriation, cast of thousands, reliance on preexisting commodities such as hit prequels or comic books, and global distribution system, with a showcasing of the latest digital-graphic applications as an essential component of its attraction.

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My sentimental education regarding this matter proceeded from my stint in the Marcos-era film agency, heightened by my film-school internship, and concretized in the year-long freelance work I conducted, in effect replicating what I did right after completing my first degree, in journalism. Allow me to interject here that freelancing in media is the one thing I would never recommend to any fresh graduate, unless she or he has a masochistic streak. Nevertheless, I had enough of a background in student activism and government service to sustain me with a few overweening delusions: first, that scouting the field for the best option can be done while earning a living; second, that media outfits would be fair enough to reward hard work rooted in academic training; and third and most unreasonable of all, that a free radical could effect some changes significant enough to improve the system.

In my short autobiographical account of my stint as production assistant for a mainstream studio, I mentioned a notion I’d hoped for that somehow became a reality: today, graduates of any of the country’s few film programs get hired by film and media outfits on a regular basis (David, “Movie Worker” 13). An even luckier few of these degree-holders manage to skip an on-the-job training process and make local and sometimes global waves with their first few film projects. Yet the lesson that impacted my practice as film critic did not appear in this account I wrote. It was something I formulated later, after returning to film commentary by being designated the resident film critic of a prominent weekly newsmagazine.

I will admit that I wished that when I first stated my newly formulated ethical premise, my colleagues hailed me as harbinger of a useful and progressive insight. In reality, I collected a number of verbally abusive responses then, and still do so occasionally today. Strangest of all, for me, is the fact that these almost entirely come from representatives of the national university, bastion of claims to Marxist ideals in the country. My aforementioned premise runs as follows. Because of its industrial nature, film practice enables individuals to support themselves and their families and acquaintances. We kid ourselves if we merely focus on the high-profile examples of celebrities and producers and major creative artists: the majority of people working on any sufficiently busy project would actually be working-class, as I had been when I worked in the industry.

When a project ends, one could sense a festive atmosphere, with people simply relieved that the struggles and headaches that they sustained through several weeks, sometimes months or even years, of mostly physical labor, have finally come to an end. Yet on the ground, there would also be palpable anxiety: which upcoming project can they latch onto, in order to be able to continue maintaining a decent source of income? Corollary to this is their hope that the project they just finished earn back its investment, if not become a hit, because this means the producer would be able to bankroll a future film, with the strong possibility of rehiring them.

I tracked this logic to its extreme conclusion and realized that its ethical core was solid enough to apply to any kind of project. Even a supposedly aesthetically dubious undertaking, like a genre film, or a socially disreputable effort, like a trash or pornographic entry, still represents a godsend to any impoverished member of the film crew. And if the said dismissible output makes a killing at the box-office, this may be unwelcome news to society’s moral and aesthetic guardians, but it certainly portends nothing but glad tidings for the project’s collaborators – its producers and artists, of course, but its workers as well, silent though they may be.

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I was taken aback, and still tend to have the same response, by the magnitude of the hostility exhibited by academe-trained experts whenever I attempted to articulate this critical premise. In retrospect, of course, I can see where my should-be colleagues were coming from. The class-based orientation of orthodox Marxist training behooves them to focus on the role of captains of industry – producers, financiers, investors – and subject their judgment of a film product to the moral depredations wrought by capital. As a consequence, profitability, according to this view, should be its own reward already, so a movie that hits pay dirt ought to meet higher expectations or face critical dismissal. Bound up with this judgmental mindset would be the known political sympathies of the major entities behind the production, as well as the operations of narrative formulas, with genre projects suggesting a questionable set of motives, and “low” or “body” genres confirming the producers’ and filmmakers’ surrender to decadence.

The one auspicious and relatively recent development on this front is that a progressive strain in feminist thinking, which we might call the sex-positive anti-censorship school (Kleinhans and Lesage 24-26), has set out to recuperate these modes of practice that once resulted in what we might term film detritus, or types of movies that so-called respectable experts and institutions would have jettisoned from any canon-forming activity; some of the more familiar examples would include pornography, horror, tearjerker melodrama, toilet-humor and slapstick comedy, home and diaristic movies, even advertising and propaganda.

This development was affirmed on several institutional fronts during the last few years of the 20th century. For example, of the over 200 titles classified as “condemned” or “offensive” by the US Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency from 1936 to 1978 (Catholic News Service), several showed up in the so-called Vatican Film List (SDG), which were supposedly endorsements to the faithful of nearly 50 titles, presented by the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications on the occasion of cinema’s first centenary in 1995. What this meant was that movies once regarded as immoral by religious standards, were later admired as insightful windows into the human condition. When I was in the process of completing my cinema-studies doctorate, the top-ranked American film schools started announcing courses on US skinflicks of the 1970s, now regarded as a Golden Age in porn production; a previously X-rated film, John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972), was an arthouse hit, as was an even earlier entry, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), described as Russ Meyer’s tribute to bosomania. Films with outright pornographic sequences can at present be submitted to compete in the A-list film festivals of Europe, and even win major awards for the effort.

What this made evident to me was the fact that in popular culture, no pre-existing judgment is guaranteed to last forever. Just as the historical heroics and Biblical epics and costume dramas that once dominated US Academy Awards are only screened for camp amusement today, and the downgraded B-movies of that same era are now considered essential to studies on the development of film language (Monaco 7-10), so can we indulge in the engaging exercise of identifying which contemporary forms of audiovisual media happen to endure the disapprobation of authorities in government, academe, and corporate-sponsored institutions. Only those among us who still cling to beliefs in eternal verities in approaches to popular culture, will be dismayed by the constant revision and repudiation of standards that mark contemporary evaluations of film and cultural artefacts, and will probably be surprised when today’s so-called trash items become tomorrow’s objets d’art.

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I might need to clarify, however, that my insistence on recognizing the cruciality of continuing film-production activity to the sustenance of an industry, does not imply that I desisted from formulating negative commentary during the six-year period when I had to turn in reviews on a weekly basis. What my premise precluded, in my personal practice, was the use of sweeping condemnations like “worst movie ever made,” unless I could mix in tonal shadings of irony or camp. Put another way, anything that could lead to the conclusion that such-and-such a release should never have been made would make me think more than twice: I could just as well be commenting on the potboilers I had worked on, and if they’d never been made, how would I have survived?

How then should I evaluate the moral worth of a film that I had to review? The answer to this entailed a two-stage procedure, one building on the other, and once more provoking unusual controversy. The first necessitated a bout of critical self-awareness on my end, a condition that applies as much to resident critics as to contemporary bloggers, especially those who set out to cover sudden concentrations of new or old releases, such as film festivals or retrospectives. When an editor or publisher stipulates that the critic must review everything on a given slate, the latter ought to initiate a constant negotiation regarding which releases are accordant with her level of competence or interest, and which ones lie beyond the scope of her abilities. I was fortunate during my resident-critic years that the movie industry was churning out up to four local releases a week, not to mention the far bigger amount of foreign releases that were being distributed. So picking out a film or two or more, out of five to ten choices, was a far better ratio than the one-to-one requirement imposed by some internet websites on their reviewers.

The second stage, as I mentioned, was when troubles would arise – not with my casual readers, but with my self-appointed critics. The method I observed took shape after the usual formal-slash-sociological, form-and-content approaches I used, left more questions than answers in their wake. Mostly these would revolve on another bout of self-doubt: how sure was I that any declaration I made was certain to hold up through an unpredictable future? As an example, a canon-creation project for Philippine cinema, ongoing for nearly a decade already, yielded several surprises when we went through the few major films of the past half-century (David and Maglipon). Among the movies released during the martial-law period of 1972 to 1986, for example, several titles acclaimed for their political daring felt, in retrospect, like melodramas in desperate search of significance. What stood out today, with some of them increasing in stature and integrity, were the honest-to-goodness flat-out melodramas, dismissed by film critics of the time for being flighty, apolitical, decadent, tending toward camp, and produced by a studio suspected of reveling in covert sponsorship from the dictatorial regime.

The ideal critical approach would therefore set down any conclusion we can make about a movie as strictly provisional, subject to further developments in cultural and political history. But what about the more problematic film-texts I mentioned earlier – i.e., the movies that enjoyed popular patronage? Would there be a means of presenting findings about these releases without falling into the trap of the high art-vs.-low culture binary? The only method I could think of during the time was to contact actual members of the mass audience. When I’d encounter friendly get-togethers in the congested neighborhoods where I resided, I’d approach the people I knew and chat about the movies they just watched or were planning to watch. Refreshingly, these were people who were unconcerned about my academic intent or the impression they would give about themselves among the intelligentsia. So when I asked them for the reasons behind their choices, they never felt obliged to genuflect before the altar of moral worth or aesthetic significance. What they’d provide instead was a unique though residual form of cultural logic, more helpful in elucidating why any current box-office hit was raking it in, regardless of its critical standing.

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Even today, one could see this deplorable and potentially tragic separation between the chattering classes, which would include all of us here, and the mass audience, or the public at large, or what we increasingly recognize as the majority of online netizens. When confronted with the reality of inconsistencies in voters’ choices, our colleagues would tend to explain this away by describing them as uneducated, unsophisticated, devoid of higher moral senses, vulnerable to petty corruption, oblivious to the consequences of their decisions. This type of academically acceptable though horrifically anti-progressive approach was what I attempted to evade via the admittedly casual anthropological research I conducted before setting out to articulate my responses to any contemporary film release during my time as resident critic. Once again, for reasons that I cannot (and prefer not to) fathom at this time, colleagues tended to react violently when I set this out as a prescription.

The first time I laid it out, rather than used it as a means of explicating specific popular films, a trend in Philippine cinema was arousing the ire of people across various political divides, even opposing ones. This was during a time, a few years after the world-famous February 1986 “people power” uprising, when the surest guarantee of box-office performance was for any movie to resort to toilet humor (David, “Shooting Crap” 109-10). Characters would be seen on prime-time TV trailers clutching their tummies or butts, rushing to toilet cubicles, with diarrheic sounds emanating from inside and characters in the vicinity responding to what appear to be unpleasant odors. The exponent of this funky trend was a comedian named Joey de Leon, still-popular today, whose latest exploit was a wildly successful comic-romantic setup that played out during the real-time real-life segment of a noontime variety show (Zamora).

Gamely accepting the challenge to defend his use of toilet humor on a TV talk show, de Leon found himself confronting the right-wing pro-Church chair of the censors board, as well as a leftist academic famed for being occasionally censored and thrown in jail by the martial-law government of Ferdinand Marcos. During a time when the members of the left-leaning Concerned Artists of the Philippines were conducting a series of rallies to protest post-Marcos censorship policies, this was the one remarkable moment when representatives of both sides came together for a common cause – to castigate de Leon’s reliance on a borderline-obscene strategy for provoking audience laughter. I criticized the spectacle via the following remark:

to question a person on the basis of principle is a simple thing to do, but when that principle happens to enjoy popular support, then the possibility of claiming to be better than the majority, antithetical to the democratic premise of raising questions on their behalf in the first place, emerges. This puts the … “critic” in a position too awkwardly similar to that of the cultural censor, who derives his raison d’être from the perverse notion that the people, even (or especially) in a democracy, could not know what is good for them. (David, “Shooting Crap” 110)

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One direct aftermath was that a few years later, I encountered the aforementioned artist-academic during my graduate studies in the US, and got berated by him for violating some code of bourgeois behavior that I could not decipher. I later figured out that it might have been because of the article I had written: I had taken extra care not to mention him by name, but there was certainly no denying the widespread coverage of his full-on theatrical performance as offended moral guardian on live TV. What I could have explained, if he had been able to simmer down and engage in a sober discussion, was that the moviegoers I had talked with certainly did not regard themselves as cultural dupes longing or willing to be taken in by a possibly cynically motivated comic talent. The key lay in the still-prevalent euphoria over the people-power event, when the country’s major artists all focused on projects that would commemorate the ouster of a long-entrenched tyrant and the restoration of democratic institutions.

The movie audience responded to these predictable and frankly sanctimonious texts by withholding their patronage of local film releases. As a result, from an average of nearly 170 films produced during the Marcos years, sometimes hitting as high as over 230 productions in one year, the local industry came up with 120 titles the year after people power and barely 100 the year after (David, “Annual Filipino Film Production Chart”); many of these in fact were sex films intended for the minimally policed rural circuit. The country’s most successful studio, Regal Films, managed to persuade audiences to resume their movie-going habit by providing comic fantasies featuring a breakout child actor, Aiza (now Ice) Seguerra (“Aiza Seguerra”). While these appealed to women and child viewers, Joey de Leon found a means of filling the gap for more mature audiences, including males, by seizing on a deliberately uncouth rejection of the spiritualistically inspired religious revivalism induced by what people still refer to today as the “miracle at EDSA.”

The difficulty of pursuing this particular configuration of critical framework cum method is further complicated by the stylistic demands it makes on expression. The principle I follow stems from the differentiation between academic writing and criticism. The only Filipino film critic recognized as a National Artist, Bienvenido Lumbera, prescribed an approach to writing criticism that conflated it with scholarship: “the writer must not be imprisoned by cuteness or [snark]. I think that’s a very strong tendency when one is beginning to write, when you fall in love with a manner, an expression, a point that you want to make, and you put that across and sacrifice the object you’re talking about” (Lumbera 72).

My own response, as a graduate-studies scholar confronted with the demand to observe an “objective” and “impersonal” presentation of research findings, was to constantly seek ways to query, if not subvert, this requirement, rather than allow an entire arsenal of literary possibilities to go to waste. In doing so, I managed to realize that the process of deconstructive jouissance can operate beyond analytics, via the mechanics of style. In criticism, especially in reviewing for a general readership, the playpen covers a far wider territory. The expressive demands may be greater, but the potential to involve the reader in formally discursive challenges, with the commentary providing a fixed reflexive coordinate to the film or films being discussed, would be worth the extra effort of drafting what we may call the creative critique.

The ideal to strive for would be an industrial intervention, where the critic helps articulate, for the artist as well as the audience, the film-text’s historical significance and significations, the development of the project’s auteur or auteurs, the industrial limits posed by budget, technology, and training, and how these may be overcome, and the larger social, political, cultural, regional, and global concerns (if any) where text, auteur, and audience may position themselves in pursuit of further insights or benefits. Such instances of intensive interactions among critics, creatives, and consumers have been few and far between, in the experience of Philippine cinema. Nevertheless, they have been known to happen, and have generally proved fulfilling for all parties concerned. The goal in observing a useful and progressive ethical approach to film criticism would be to ensure that critics’ contributions to the growth and development of cinema become a more-or-less permanent feature of creative cultural activity.

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Works Cited

Aiza [sic] Seguerra.” Wow Celebrities! (August 1, 2008).

Catholic News Service (Media Review Office). “Archived Movie Reviews.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. No date.

David, Joel. “Annual Filipino Film Production Chart.” Ámauteurish! (February 25, 2016).

———. “Birds of Omen.” Philippine Collegian (July 26, 1978): 3, 6. Reprinted in Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery (Part I: Traversals within Cinema) in UNITAS: Semi-Annual Peer-Reviewed International Online Journal of Advanced Research in Literature, Culture, and Society 88.1 (May 2015): 43-45.

———. “Movie Worker.” National Midweek (November 4, 1987): 15-16. Reprinted in Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery (Part II: Expanded Perspectives) in UNITAS: Semi-Annual Peer-Reviewed International Online Journal of Advanced Research in Literature, Culture, and Society 89.1 (May 2016): 13-16.

———. “Shooting Crap.” National Midweek (April 4, 1990): page(s) unkown. Reprinted in Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1995): 109-12.

David, Joel, and Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon. SINÉ: The YES List of 100+ Films That Celebrate Philippine Cinema. Summit Media, 2019 (forthcoming).

Greydanus, Steven D. “The Vatican Film List.” DecentFilms: Film Appreciation and Criticism Informed by Christian Faith. No date.

Kleinhans, Chuck, and Julia Lesage. “The Politics of Sexual Representation.” Jump Cut 30 (March 1985): 24-26.

Lumbera, Bienvenido. “Critic in Academe.” Interview. National Midweek (April 4, 1990): 20-22, 46. Reprinted in Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery (Part II: Expanded Perspectives) in UNITAS: Semi-Annual Peer-Reviewed International Online Journal of Advanced Research in Literature, Culture, and Society 89.1 (May 2016): 65-74.

Meyer, Russ (director). Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Scriptwriter Jack Moran. Performed by Tura Satana, Haji, Lori Williams, Ray Barlow, Susan Bernardo, Mickey Foxx, Dennis Busch, Stuart Lancaster, Paul Trinka. EVE Productions, 1965.

Monaco, James. The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette. Oxford University Press, 1976.

Waters, John (director & scriptwriter). Pink Flamingos. Performed by Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivan Pearce, Mink Stole, Danny Mills, Edith Massey, Channing Wilroy, Cookie Mueller, Paul Swift. Dreamland, 1972.

Zamora, Fe. “Netizens Go Gaga over AlDub.” Philippine Daily Inquirer (August 17, 2015).

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A Salute to Our Pinay Filmmakers

While preparing for the end, Marilou Diaz-Abaya gave a series of interviews worth re-reading once in a while. Respect the audience, was her admonition to indie practitioners. Work to develop their preferred product, which then as now meant rom-com films.

Responses by local gatekeepers melded with Euro-festival jurors to ensure that this crucial bit of advice be downgraded and ignored as quickly as possible. Only high-art, alienating, complex-but-inconclusive films were fielded to foreign filmfests & local critics’ competitions, where they dominated the prizes for the past several years. Filmmakers (often women) who so much as deviated from the poverty-focused extreme aestheticizations that these taste-mongers upheld, were scolded for supposedly betraying progressive ideals.

As it turned out, it was women (with an occasional male director or two) who laid the foundations of the Pinoy rom-com in the 1990s, another batch who strengthened it in the 2000s, and still another group hard at work during this decade in transforming it.

One would have to be an ideologically arrested thinker to believe that their output is automatically invalidated by the popular acclaim that it so rightfully earns. For one thing, several of the current practitioners did dabble in indie work, and (as if observing Diaz-Abaya’s advice) brought over what strengths they developed to tweak, improve, and revise the rom-com format.

The fact that the most prominent Pinoy international film festival, San Francisco’s FACINE, wound up honoring a rom-com entry, its jurors smitten by its unexpected warmth and delicacy, affirms that our women filmmakers are on the right track. The Young Critics Circle also gave their major prizes to women working in documentaries – and in a rom-com project.

If progressive is seen as any effort that upgrades the public’s habits by meeting its demands halfway, and regards genre exercises as a means of conveying new insights and possibilities, then this is certainly a trend worth attending to. The promise of viewing pleasure would just be icing on the cake, a reward for finally coming to terms with an audience that is truly our own.

[Posted March 25, 2019, on Facebook]


Tears Go By

Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha
Directed & written by Mes de Guzman

The narrative of Philippine movie stardom attained a final, irrevocable peak with Sharon Cuneta. One may validate this statement by dissecting the manifold categories that made possible the preeminence of Nora Aunor, the biggest star in the country’s history, and inspecting how the other aspirants measure up. From star-texts scholar and close Cuneta observer Jek Josue David (no relation), the three most crucial aspects would be multimedia (or multifunctional) expertise, longevity, and persistence of fan devotion. This would make Cuneta Aunor’s only contemporaneous match, following a number of mostly male predecessors: Fernando Poe Jr., Dolphy, and (from an earlier batch) Carmen Rosales. I would add that most of these names, from the 1960s onward (and thereby excluding Rosales), had their own production outfits.

Aunor’s edge over most stars is that she commuted effortlessly between mainstream and independent projects (although in a technical sense, outfits set up and owned by stars made them not just independent, but literally part of a star system). Cuneta’s own difference was that the production outfit associated with her, Viva Films, was actually a major studio rather than a company where she could call the shots for other people’s projects. It would be erroneous however to presuppose that she never had any so-called indie projects. Her very first starring role, in fact, was in a Sining Silangan Production, and prior to this she had short appearances in a number of other non-studio movies. Since the present millennium, she also appeared in a Unitel as well as an OctoArts film.

Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha (hereafter APHL) is the closest Cuneta has come to an Aunor-type indie undertaking: not only does the production company bear (half) her name, but the project itself partakes of several elements reminiscent of her earlier indie-project attempt, Mark Meily’s Crying Ladies (2003): proletarian material, offbeat handling, moral ambiguity. Yet in this instance, APHL also exhibits the same difficulty that digital-era indie-filmmakers have with legends like Aunor. Perhaps overwhelmed by their stardom and dedication to excellence, the newer generation seems hesitant in (perhaps incapable of, but let’s hope I’m wrong) crafting roles that would challenge these performers, enabling them to break out of the mold that their personas invoke.

In this specific instance, Cuneta starts out as a landowner abandoned by her husband and children, who displaces her heartache and longing by attempting to reunite the supposedly propitious title clan in her unoccupied guesthouse, and winds up banishing the family members upon realizing how they had tricked her into believing the folk-mystic claims about them. The benevolent-hacendera character suggests a throwback (or perhaps, though less likely, a tribute) to her erstwhile rival Kris Aquino’s familial circumstances. The situation also enables her character’s dramatic highlight, a breakdown scene where the issues she repressed finally surface – and it is a measure of Cuneta’s ability that she remains as grounded in this openly melodramatic resolution as she is in the rest of the film.

The missed opportunity in this case is suggested by the presence of the sidekick character Bebang, played by Moi Marcampo (surnamed Bien in the credits). Cora, Cuneta’s character, is actually presented from Bebang’s perspective – which results in Marcampo having more screen time. More significantly, she winds up with a greater opportunity to indulge in wacky antics with concomitant witty lines while embodying an essentially tragic figure, recognizable to OFWs, of a migrant worker forced to endure alienation and abuse out of filial devotion to an utterly self-interested parent. Interestingly, Cuneta had portrayed several aspects of Bebang before: not just as a migrant worker in Chito S. Roño’s Caregiver in 2008, but also as an Aunor-type rags-to-riches aspirant during the end of her onscreen romantic partnership with her ex-husband. (For an exhaustive evaluation of this period, see Bliss Cua Lim’s article “Sharon’s Noranian Turn.”)

APHL could have been an opportunity for the Cuneta audience to witness how she could have improved on, say, Dorina Pineda of Emmanuel H. Borlaza’s Bituing Walang Ningning (1985) or Lupe Velez of Lino Brocka’s Pasan Ko ang Daigdig (1987). From the 1990s onward, people found increasingly lesser reason to doubt her ability in delineating characters closer to her real-life condition. APHL provides further confirmation of her expertise in essaying a family-centric elderly woman abandoned by her kinfolk, leavening the presentation via the use of astute comic timing and enriching it through judicious deployment of dramatic moments that build up to her final outburst.

It will always be worth a sitting, if only for affording the spectacle of Sharon Cuneta inhabiting a distinctly indie-movie universe. She allows herself to be deglamorized, dresses up in robes and pajamas and duds, goes on drunken rants and a climactic hysterical breakdown. Through it all she demonstrates the bottom-line confirmation of stardom: that she can let herself go onscreen, and still retain the allure and incandescence of the same young teen who once devoted herself to a public that could never get enough of the conflicted middle-class strong-woman representation she embodied. Her sun is far from having set, and APHL is proof of her readiness to venture into other modes, other landscapes. Aunor has had enough semi-successful or even failed movies that serve as revelatory treats for her fans when they get tired of her usual fare; Cuneta, in many ways the final Filipino star, is coming up with that kind of legacy for herself.

[First published October 18, 2018, in All Things Sharon]

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Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic

Please click on image for enlargement.
To order from the publisher, please click here.


From the INTRODUCTION (pp. 17-24):

As soon as I started the professional life that I had yet to fully chart, Manila by Night was ready to mark my steps. I had just completed the first of two bachelors degrees  at the University of the Philippines (declared the national university in 2008), but my preparation for a career in journalism did not work out as I (and my circles of friends) thought it would. The anti-dictatorship movement I had participated in prescribed a brand of Marxism that I later learned went by a few names, with “orthodox” being the less-offensive term. I decided to distance myself from the political and economic analyses on which I’d built my name as a campus journalist, and focused on cultural reporting. My internships also alerted me to the existence of values that I knew I could never take seriously – the cultivation of sources (the more exclusive or exceptional, the better), for example, and the drive to out-scoop everyone else. I decided to give freelancing a shot, and when I couldn’t shape a sufficiently interesting story out of a cultural (usually film) event, I’d turn in a review instead.

By late 1979, I’d made enough of a buzz to be invited to the award-giving film critics circle. I also heard of a movie about Manila nightlife – which I’d been discovering on my own as a restless, hyperactive insomniac. When I was invited to a preview of Manila by Night, I was stunned to discover a lot of the personalities, locales, and lingo that I’d familiarized myself with since college. It was like I didn’t have to wait until nightfall any longer: I could just step into the screen, and that would be the city I had come to know. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it was electric, erotic, vulgar, violent, dangerous, and loving, all in ways that the US-supported and Catholic Church-sanctioned dictatorship of Ferdinand E. Marcos would find embarrassing, if not outright immoral. It was too good to be untrue, so to speak, so I resolved to watch it as often as I could in case the regime decided to destroy all existing copies and consign the film to oblivion.

Which nearly came to pass. Before I could arrange to watch another preview, news came out that the movie had been banned by the then-militarized Board of Censors for Motion Pictures, a body that had tussled with Manila by Night director-writer Ishmael Bernal a few times already for too-earthy sex scenes in his previous films. “No worries,” said those in charge of the film, since the movie would be making its debut in an international venue anyway, having just been personally selected by Moritz de Hadeln to compete at the Berlin International Film Festival. Bernal, whom I’d met as a critics circle member, provided me with cassette tapes on which a playback of the audio track was recorded, with instructions to transcribe the dialog and provide a literal translation to be used as a guide by the German subtitler. The tapes were low-end, obviously second-hand, and I had to return them right after using them; if I’d known they would be the source of the only available “integral” version of the film, I would have asked for a better recording. A “where-are-they-now” epilogue was also hastily assembled by the producers for the Berlinale screening, to mollify the censors by making the claim that the intransigent characters were punished while the rest became upright citizens worthy of Ferdinand Marcos’s “New Society.”

After I turned in my work, a grapevine report circulated in film circles, about Imelda Marcos, with her typical flair for the dramatic, watching the movie and breaking down afterward. Everyone’s worst fear was confirmed: the movie would remain in limbo until the First Lady could be persuaded otherwise. I requested the copy of the transcription I made from Bernal so it could be printed, “uncensored,” in the March 1981 issue of The Review, a now-defunct monthly periodical in which I wrote and occasionally edited special issues. In November 1980, a few months before the script came out, the movie itself was approved for local release, with a four-page censors’ permit – the longest that had ever accompanied a Philippine screening. Since all mention of “Manila” (dubbed “City of Man” by the increasingly unstable Imelda) was disallowed, the movie’s title was changed to City after Dark.

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The deliberation session for the critics’ annual awards was understandably turbulent. Along with a few other members, I insisted that any recognition given to City after Dark would be tantamount to validating what the censors had done. This resulted in a surprising inconsistency in the awards results, including a win for Best Picture but a loss for Best Director (one senior member mentioned that Bernal deserved to be “taught a lesson” regarding the lack of surface polish in his work). The logic was certainly bizarre – if the mangled version of the film deserved to win, then its strength derived primarily from its directorial virtues. From this point onward I began to question the Hollywoodian logic behind the critics’ awards activities, and have since sworn to premise my critical output on the assumption that, among other things, their earlier methods of multiple screenings and intensive deliberations may be useful, but their divisive, formalist, and canonical social-realist approach to award-giving deserved nothing but condemnation, if not contempt.

Meanwhile, the publicity team behind Manila by Night continued to conduct previews of the uncensored version – and I continued to attend as many of them as I could. I’d seen Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), Bernal’s takeoff text, during its week-long run in Manila, and began paying close attention to attempts by other filmmakers, as well as by Bernal himself, to replicate this specific approach to the multiple-character film narrative. Despite the trauma experienced by Manila by Night, the multicharacter film format succeeded so well that it became a recognizable and distinct genre in Philippine film practice, with filmmakers (and a few critics) describing its samples as “milieu movies” and producers as well as talent managers introducing new faces in batches meant to appear as equal lead performers in as many film projects as they could sustain.

A few years later, the anti-dictatorship movement began to pose a serious challenge to Ferdinand Marcos’s presidency. I was working at the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), the government film agency, and was surprised by the ease by which I was able to circulate a request to screen Manila by Night (not City after Dark) and process the paperwork for its release. The agency also assigned me to complete the then newly introduced undergraduate film program at the national university. Even before the people-power uprising of February 1986, the ECP was dissolved, but my new degree enabled me to start teaching as an instructor, and eventually helped me wangle a Fulbright grant for graduate studies in the US. My doctoral dissertation dealt, predictably enough, with the multicharacter film format.

During my last trip to Manila, I had an informal discussion with Bernal (a mini-interview of sorts), and managed to extract from him a promise to sit for an interview for my dissertation on multicharacter cinema. I told him I’d be drafting a set of questions and would send them to him before my next trip home. While I was away, he passed away from cerebral aneurysm, joining the legendary realm where Manila by Night continues to flourish. I decided to forgo all trips outside the US until I had completed my dissertation. My residency deadline was looming, and I was hastily drafting my manuscript on September 11, 2001, when my parents called to ask if everything was all right. The first tower crashed right after I turned on the television, and from that point on I knew that returning to the Philippines might not be the best option, but it was the only definite line of action that would be open to me in the near future. Bernal had been gone for over half a decade, and Philippine cinema was about to abandon celluloid production and embrace the digital era for good.

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From ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. 9-10):

Profuse thanks to Patricio N. Abinales, Thelma E. Arambulo, Tina Baluyut, Joey Baquiran, Vicky Belarmino, Bernardo Bernardo, Pete Bilderback, Karen Blackstein, Marivic Buquis-Tjardes, Flor Caagusan, Patrick F. Campos, Veronica Caparas, Robert Cerda, Mel Chionglo, Leloy Claudio, Sylvia Estrada Claudio, Divine Go David, Gigi Felix-Velarde David, Jek Josue David, Nestor de Guzman, Nicolo del Castillo, Archie del Mundo, Lizbeth de Padua, Jojo Devera, Cynthia Estrada, Patrick D. Flores, Peque Gallaga, Alfredo Garcia, Melanie Joy C. Garduño, Paul Grant, Ju-Yong Ha, Maurine Haver, J. Pilapil Jacobo, Marne Kilates, Ricardo Lee, Bliss Cua Lim, Sergio Lobo, Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon, Juan Miguel Manansala, Gina Marchetti, Ibarra Mateo, Joe McElhaney, Toby Miller, Carla Montemayor, Roselle Monteverde, Jude Ortega, Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, Ellen J. Paglinauan, Vanessa Pallarco, Haesuk Park, Inkyu Park, Shin-gu Park, Sybil Jade Peña, Elwood Perez, Theo Tisado Pie, Benjamin Pimentel, Ethel Pineda, Jane Po, Rowena Raganit, Winston Raval, Lore Reyes, Ramon Reyes, Roselle Leah K. Rivera, Ninotchka Rosca, Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III, Angela Stuart Santiago, Aida Santos, Bayani Santos Jr., Teresita Santos, Ophelia Miller Segovia, Vincenz Serrano, Minsun Shim, Irene Balucos Sia, Boemshik Son, Robert Sklar, Francis Sollano, Robert Stam, Lauren Steimer, Chris Straayer, Lulu Torres-Reyes, Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., Violeda A. Umali, Charmian Uy, JC Velasquez, Taeyun Yu, Jovy Zarate, and Zhang Zhen.

I’ve been fortunate to work with some outstanding editors in the past, but with Matthew Hays and Thomas Waugh, I saw my early manuscript shape-shift in ways I couldn’t always anticipate, with the revised version always a new text whose acquaintance I was happy to make. They’ve been at this task for nearly a decade, without any remuneration, so while I imagine that the impending end of the Queer Film Classics series may be a relief of sorts, it would also open up a gap that other people ought to consider filling. Publishers Brian Lam and Robert Ballantyne, editors Susan Safyan and Tara Nykyforiak, and designer Oliver McPartlin are also part of the series, and while I interact mainly with professors Waugh and Hays, I occasionally correspond with the other participants in the project; as the book begins to take final shape, I can only be grateful that their commitment is just as complete and indispensable. (Portions of this manuscript have appeared in my articles in Kritika Kultura and Plaridel.)

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Contents of the Queer Film Classics Edition
© 2017 by Joel David & Arsenal Pulp Press; All Rights Reserved

PRELIMINARIES

Title Page; Copyright; Table of Contents; Dedication: For Ishmael Bernal (1938-96); Acknowledgments; Synopsis; Credits; Introduction (1-24)

BODY TEXT

Chapter I. Manila by Day: Fifty Years of Hollywood (25-69)

Movies and the Philippines
Master’s Tool
Language without Words
“Ishma” and Manila by Night
The Origin of Manila by Night
Controversies
The Berlinale Connection
The Other Manila Movie

Sidebar: A Pinoy Queer-Cinema Mini-Canon (70-75)

Chapter II. Manila by Night: City of Mania (76-115)

Many-Peopled Narratives
The Philippine Moviegoer
A Perverse Approach
Technique as Politics
Voyeuristic Restlessness
The Queering of Technique
The Mirror Effect
Sound Logic
Wow and Flutter

Sidebar: A Multicharacter-Movie Supplementary List (116-119)

Chapter III. Beyond Manila: Cinema & Nation in Crisis (121-158)

Locale as an Entity
Babies and Beauties
Triangulations
The Multicharacter Movie Genre
Road Not Taken
Milieu Realism
A “Straight” Way Forward
Gender Types
The Other(ed) Queer Character
Radical Potential

END MATTER

Conclusion; Appendix: Manay Revisits Manila by Night: An Interview with Bernardo Bernardo; References; Filmography & Theater Productions; Index; About the Author; About the Editors; Titles in the Queer Film Classics Series (159-208)

Related Links

• A special folio on the film now opens this blog’s Extras section.
• To read the book lecture “Queerness as Defiance in Manila by Night,” please click here.
• For a detailed storyline originally drafted for this book, please click here.

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Book Launch Lecture: Millennial Traversals

Millennial Traversals had a long and involved narrative behind its emergence. Invited to lecture during the website launch of the University of Santo Tomas’s UNITAS journal, I took the opportunity to discuss what turned out to be two volumes’ worth of special UNITAS journal issues. This occurred less than a week after I delivered a lecture on another recent book of mine, Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic. (To enlarge the pics at the bottom, please click on them. To go to the Millennial Traversals book feature on this blog, please click here.)

THE MILLENNIAL TRAVERSALS OF MILLENNIAL TRAVERSALS

Thank you for attending this occasion and allowing me the honor to speak in commemoration of the launch of the UNITAS website. My own contribution comprises two volumes of Millennial Traversals, which I had originally uploaded as an open-access book on my own website. I’d had occasion to go over this book several times – from conceptualizing it to finalizing it for its digital version to correcting, revising, and updating it further for what would now be its so-far final version.

Some of you might be able to read the finer (or shall we say bloodier) details of how Millennial Traversals took shape in its present form on the UNITAS website, so I might as well own up to certain motivations that I had to be careful in expressing on the page. Since the originally intended volume was non-print, I wanted to take advantage of certain freedoms unavailable to me during the times I was preparing my earlier book manuscripts for what we now call dead-tree publications. That explains the extra-long complete title, which goes Millennial Traversals [colon] Outliers [comma] Juvenilia [comma, ampersand] Quondam Popcult Blabbery – all this even before we get to the title of each part. For the same reason, I put together a digital manuscript that was a few times longer than any book I had previously published, whether as author or as editor.

What I did not anticipate, of course, was the fact that UNITAS was now being handled by a long-term acquaintance of mine. Professor Lulu Torres-Reyes and I had been coordinating since the start of the current decade, on articles, lectures, and special issues for Kritika Kultura, the journal she founded and edited at the Ateneo de Manila University. But we had actually started out as casual acquaintances for almost four decades, when we would join informal film screenings and discussions organized by mutual friends of ours. So it was no surprise to me that she had proved receptive to film-studies materials, and that when she tried her own hand at film scholarship, she met with resounding success here and in Korea, the country where I work.

When the process of transforming Millennial Traversals into the edition that can now be found on the UNITAS website was completed, I stepped back and considered what significance the project might have had, if any. I was of course thrilled that I could claim to have a book that first took shape as an open-access digital text, and wound up in a printable version afterward. All my previous books took the opposite course – from print editions in their original incarnations, to online versions on my website. I don’t know of any instance of a Philippine text that observed the format shift that Millennial Traversals underwent, although the possibility might exist somewhere. At this point, all I care to announce is that it happens to be the first local film publication that first came out in digital format. It would also be the first that passed through a print format, and wind up in still another digital format, in another website.

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What proved uncanny for me was when I finally stared at the book covers, I flashed back to the first few journal issues I ever bought, as a high-school student at the University of the Philippines. I realized later that these must have been dissertations that were deemed outstanding at the time, but each one provided me with the double satisfaction of collecting a book as well as a journal copy in one volume. Millennial Traversals is of course an anthology of my output, in keeping with the nature of all my previous sole-authored publications. It marks my farewell to this arrangement, and has been followed by the manuscripts for a film monograph on Manila by Night (recently published by Arsenal Pulp Press in Canada) and for a canonical listing of Philippine film entries for the publisher of YES! magazine, Summit Media.

Hence Millennial Traversals is and isn’t a book volume publishable as a journal issue. It is physically a UNITAS publication, in two separate issues in fact. But in its original incarnation, it was intended as a blog feature, then-unique in the Philippines, with several ambitious and probably ultimately imperfectible goals:

• first, it sought to compile my responses to Filipino films from the late 1970s to the present: of over 30 titles covered, about ten are hard to track or possibly permanently lost;

• second, it also aimed to demonstrate certain ethical functions that were part of my self-valuation as a film critic, including my insistence on financial independence from investors, the attendance of theatrical screenings with a paying audience, the re-watching of titles I planned to review in order to take down detailed notes on the text and its spectators, and the cultivation of an audience perspective that requires the readers’ participation by watching any film being commented on, regardless of my subjective response;

• third, it refused the then-fashionable practice of standing apart from practitioners in the industry, because of the so-called intentional fallacy – when in fact the author should be a primary source of the work’s always-complicated journey from conception to exhibition; and

• fourth, it gestured toward basic critical attempts concerning certain cherished beliefs among film critics, starting with certain notions that implicated myself and resulting in a few awkward examples of self-deconstruction.

The urgency of foregrounding these values was conveyed to me by friends who were closely observing the then-burgeoning film-blogging scene, complicated by the top academic and critics’ official’s statement that film bloggers deserved to be dismissed if they could not present any degree that would qualify them as film commenters. Considering that baccalaureate-level film education was either too exclusivist (available at the national university) or too expensive (in private universities), the remark was unfair and ironically elitist, given the author’s leftist bona fides.

A few critic and filmmaker friends attempted to convince me to intervene directly, by pointing out the problem in such an assumption, among other horrendous conclusions made by the same official. I opted to time my confrontations carefully, in the form of a book review and a rare exclusive blog statement. But the option of leading by example was always best practice for me, so I set about looking over the never-before-anthologized materials I could compile. I did not expect that the entire undertaking would be treated as a book, but a few netizens informed me that they were printing out the pages I had put together and binding them as voluminous textual collectanea.

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I made sure to warn people on social media that Millennial Traversals existed first and foremost as an open-access internet upload. I preferred that people would explore various categories according to whatever piqued their interest, maybe moving forward or back if any of the contiguous articles seemed worth inspecting further, or returning to the table of contents via a readily available hyperlink in case they wanted to check out another section or approach or issue. Within certain articles I also provided links to other articles, in the same book or in my other volumes, or sometimes to other websites.

I knew that this qualified notion of interactivity could be replicated in a printout of the text, but with much more difficulty. Yet I was also aware that the strictly open-access arrangement was an unstable format. Every semester I would receive a query or two from new social network acquaintances asking whether the digital editions of my books would be downloadable. My answer for nearly the past half-decade has always been the same: eventually. The transformation of digital text files into downloadable material is complicated by the fact that e-books exist in various formats. I would need to set up my own business firm in order to transact businesses with a cover designer and layout artist as well as apply for International Standard Book Numbers, one for each freaking format including the open-access version.

Needless to say, I don’t have the full luxury of attending to these concerns as speedily as I’d prefer. This accounts for my relief in UNITAS enabling Millennial Traversals to reside on its website. The original digital edition is gone for good, except for the few enthusiasts who printed it out. About 20 to 30 percent of the content was revised, since certain indeterminate or open-ended articles could last longer on the internet, given the medium’s wonderful capacity for self-correction or self-updating – a property that academics of my generation are just starting to realize and exploit. On the other hand, a book, even in journal’s clothing, is meant to be forever. As those of us who’ve been publishing might already know, perfection only appears to be an ideal, but it turns out to be too utopic to reach, the more ambitious the writing project becomes.

I’d also proffer here the wisdom I picked out from all the senior authors who’d anthologized their own articles before I started with my first volume in 1990, and which might prove useful to those considering the same kind of project. The principle of perfection-as-mirage applies: it would be impossible to identify your best entries and expect the rest to aspire to the same level of achievement. It would also be highly inadvisable to rank your articles according to your or others’ perception from best to worst or vice versa, and follow that order in anthologizing. The other obvious sequence, the time-determined one of following the articles’ chronology or reverse-chronology, similarly poses the question of the author’s rising or falling level of competence.

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Yet, from my earliest attempt onward, I found that following these problematic procedures worked best in helping me arrive at a useful structure. Counter-intuititively, I also felt more confident whenever I had more material than I could use, rather than picking out only the ones that fit a preconceived theme or thesis. This is because when you start reading more closely in order to fix typos and observe the publisher’s style requirements, you may realize that a section may require the equivalent of breathing space, or that an intensively discursive exercise could do with a stylistic coda – a function best fulfilled by a relatively throwaway article or two.

I apologize to colleagues of mine for whom these so-called lessons might already be old news. I found myself wandering down this introspective path regarding Millennial Traversals, by way of letting everyone know that I’m aware of the manifold difficulties a journal staff undergoes, on a seemingly endless basis. As soon as one issue, essentially an anthology, is completed, the next one has to be set in motion, preferably overlapping with the previous one. I once went through this kind of grind during my undergraduate and early-graduate years, and it brought out a side of me that I prefer to forget. I cannot even imagine having to contend with the additional challenge of preparing multiple volumes for uploading online.

The only source of comfort for me is that Professor Torres-Reyes could not have been any more qualified for this kind of challenge than she is at this moment. When you see her supervising the day-to-day requisites of the job with her usual humor and light touch, you can take my word that her approach comes from a long-drawn-out and contentious experience in her previous station at Kritika Kultura. Thanks to everyone for your attention, and more particularly to Lulu, the UNITAS staff, and the University of Santo Tomas.

Announcement of the event, along with a photo of the turnover of complimentary copies (pic courtesy of Cory Quitoriano); as well as a commemorative pose with UNITAS editor Lulu Torres-Reyes, filmmaker Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, and contributor and educator Bayani Santos Jr. (pic courtesy of E. Ongkeko-Marfil).

(Delivered on August 16, 2018, at the UNITAS Seminar Room, St. Raymund de Peñafort Building, University of Santo Tomas, España Boulevard, Sampaloc, Manila)

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Signal Rock and a Hard Place

Directed by Chito Roño
Written by Rody Vera

Signal Rock is a deceptively simple film whose complications begin with its current emergence in the public consciousness. It is released as an entry to the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, so to single it out as the excellent entry that it is should not be taken as a downgrading of the other entries. To make matters worse, the PPP follows yet another event, the older Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, so audiences who already splurged in watching this year’s entries might be understandably reluctant to spend further on the current (and pricier) lineup. PPP also features previously unreleased films from earlier festivals – this time a more definite guarantee of jury approval, notwithstanding the Cinema Evaluation Board’s weirdly moralistic downgrading of a couple of aspirants.

In fact, some of the PPP entries are also regional films like Signal Rock – Tara Illenberger’s Iloilo-set High Tide and Arnel Barbarona’s Manobo tale Tu Pug Imatuy come to mind, as well as the only one I’ve seen of the lot, Khavn’s CEB-victimized Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, which like Signal Rock is also set in Samar. A comparison of Balangiga and Signal Rock would be a useful place to start then. Where Balangiga’s narrative enlarges on the incomprehensible historical trauma of genocidally motivated colonial warfare, Signal Rock demonstrates the impact that globalization has made on even a far-flung Third-World island.

The movie is the director’s and writer’s second project set in Biri island, part of a municipality in Northern Samar – which makes it one of the Visayan islands closest to Luzon.[1] Their earlier Biri film, Badil (2013), featured a young man attending to his father’s unsavory (and ultimately bloody) vote-buying activities during an election period where the still-running mayor asks for support from his cohorts. Intoy, the Biri lad at the center of Signal Rock, is more recognizably provincial, by our usual cynical-urbane standards: laid-back, easy-going, content with helping everyone and indulging in occasional youthful hijinks, with an equally indulgent police chief making sure that he and his homies get their token share of punishment.

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His initiation into worldliness, in more ways than one, occurs when he falls in love with a local lass, whose father regards him as unworthy for a prospective in-law. Intoy’s naïveté catches himself off-guard: he could have known the kind of future he’d be facing if he reflected on the troubles that his sister had been struggling with as an abusive foreigner’s mistress, forced to seek refuge by herself in a foreign land. The lesson becomes even more pronounced in the dilemma of his best friend, whose childhood sweetheart returns as the now-prosperous wife of an elderly Caucasian, upon which his still-besotted friend is reduced to being his ex-girlfriend’s paramour. Intoy’s epiphany, that the women of the town are being groomed to work for – and eventually be claimed by – overseas masters, is something that most Filipino intellectuals have known for some time. Signal Rock’s first singular achievement is in restoring the sting to this revelation, by allowing the kind of Filipino we used to know to be overcome by it.

That insight alone would have been enough to add depth to any number of romantic comedies (and you might find it unusual for me to claim here that Signal Rock is, literally, a romantic comedy – more conventional in fact that the contemporary mainstream versions whose terms were set four years ago by That Thing Called Tadhana, Antoinette Jadaone’s indie-crossover hit). But the director-writer team have a better treat in store: where the usual melodrama, even the long-drawn-out telenovelas, would bypass a bureaucratic process and get by with merely mentioning it, the movie delineates the process itself and draws dramatic tension out of it, as well as some light comedy, essential suspense, and insightful glimpses into small-town relationships. Here the filmmakers manage to traverse the tricky depiction of desperation and corruption among the destitute without falling into the trap of poverty porn, via the still-rare culturalist strategy of refusing to pass judgment on any of the characters and by partaking of any instance in their celebration of their existence, no matter how paltry or seemingly pathetic.

This approach even enables them to engage in reflexive touches, as when the plot follows Intoy’s venture into Manila’s talons of neon, thereby equating his character with that of Julio Madiaga in Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag. In this particular instance, Signal Rock signifies its ideological superiority over Philippine cinema’s global critics’ favorite, just as Christian Bables’s performance as Intoy will prove to be more enduring than Bembol Roco’s still-impressive Julio M.: Maynila may remain one of the most technically accomplished Filipino film epics ever made, but none of its identity problems (sexism, homophobia, racial and anti-lumpen prejudice) mars Signal Rock’s engagement with a wide variety of working-class and lumpenprole types. A mother’s hard-heartedness toward her husband is explained via his past cruelty and negligence toward her; the said husband (Intoy’s father) is able to draw on his limited English-language expertise in order to redeem his daughter’s own standing as an overseas resident; a hotheaded fratricidal slacker retains enough of a conscience to surrender to authorities thanks to his close relationship with the parish priest, with whom he may or may not be lovers; and so on. The movie’s emphasis on mostly male characters derives not from a desire to heroize them (least of all Intoy), but from the circumstantial result of women abandoning the community in order to earn a living for everyone via foreign labor.

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The clue to understanding how the film can pull off the delightful hat trick of melding process, lead character, and community into one arresting narrative is in looking over the director’s background. I don’t refer to the fact that he happens to be a Samareño who acquired familiarity with the Philippine capital as well as with other global centers, or that his father was the longest-serving minister of Ferdinand Marcos’s martial-law administration while he oversaw the “alternative cinema” screening schedule of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. Chito Roño is generally overlooked in accounts of still-active survivors of the Marcos-era Golden Age, partly because of the progressive sector’s eagerness to reject anyone associated with the regime, but also partly because he devoted himself to so-called “low” genres, specifically those dealing with sex, horror, lurid melodrama, and action films centered on women.

Those who bothered to look more closely into his output were rewarded with some of the most innovative attacks as well as delectable performances in commercial cinema, in packages that weren’t burdened by the “prestige” imprint. More than Badil, Signal Rock would be the equivalent of David Lynch abandoning his usual offbeat material and methods in order to do his appropriately titled 1999 film, The Straight Story. Yet the same creative and critical sensibility infuses Signal Rock’s “regular” world. Intoy’s awakening to illicit relationships, for example, begins when he witnesses his friend resume his affair with his now-married girlfriend, and intensifies when the town mayor confides in him the paternity of his illegitimate son. When he starts witnessing people in similarly unexpected and possibly incriminating situations, he learns to practice discretion – a skill that comes in handy when he finally meets up with his girlfriend in the big city.

Roño’s directorial flourishes are more foregrounded in Signal Rock than they were in Badil, yet they remain unintrusive (as discreet as Intoy learns to be) – a sign of the filmmaker’s maturation. In the first few scenes with the title object alone, we already see expert overlappings of image and sound so that more than one event transpires in single scenes; the first time Intoy visits the place by himself, we hear the wind transformed into the sound of a woman weeping. The movie is so full of these throwaway gems that the only advisable response I can provide for a first screening is to sit back and take in the pleasure of a conglomeration of talents who love what they do and know how to go about making it happen.

Note

[1] Because of the Northern Samar islands’ diagonal position in relation to Luzon, Capul island lies closer to Sorsogon Province although Biri is the northernmost Visayan municipality.

[First published August 17, 2018, in the Philippine Entertainment Portal]

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Book Launch Lecture: Manila by Night

The summer of 2018 marked my first visit home after three of my four book volumes (actually two of my three books) had come out. I was invited to speak at the book launch of Pro Bernal, Anti Bio, Angela Stuart Santiago’s completion of Jorge Arago’s interrupted biography of Ishmael Bernal; the occasion was titled Queer & Defiant: Ishmael Bernal, Bernardo Bernardo, & Manila by Night. I took the occasion to talk about Manila by Night, the movie as well as the monograph I contributed to Arsenal Pulp Press’s Queer Film Classics series. About a week later I was guest speaker once more, this time at the website launch of the University of Santo Tomas’s UNITAS journal, where I was requested to speak about the two volumes of Millennial Traversals. The Manila by Night lecture below was followed by a percipient set of questions by my colleague, Patrick D. Flores, but unfortunately I was unable to take time to recall them after the event. (To enlarge the pics, please click on them. To go to the Manila by Night book feature on this blog, please click here.)

QUEERNESS AS DEFIANCE IN MANILA BY NIGHT

Facebook announcements. (Courtesy of Katrina Stuart-Santiago)

Many thanks for making the effort to trek all the way to what was once known as the centerpiece of the City of Man, the [Cultural Center of the Philippines] Complex. I used to work at one of the edifices here, the now-condemned Manila Film Center, and even though public transportation then was far more efficient and inexpensive, coming all the way here is not something I can be easily persuaded to do, now that I can find all the excuses I want.

Katrina Stuart-Santiago was extremely patient and encouraging in making all the necessary arrangements, but my interaction with her goes all the way back, in discussing the botched National Artist Awards procedure during the second Aquino regime, and later in going over some points of the book that she worked on with her mother, Angela. My association with Patrick Flores goes even further back, nearly three decades if I’m not mistaken. We were contributors to the review section of National Midweek, and when his review of Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit came out, friends asked me if I resorted to using a pen name again. I told them no – I wasn’t ready to write anything as accomplished as he did on the subject of local melodrama.

We had a conflicted and sometimes contentious relationship, but I bring out this history here so that I might be able to demonstrate to you that the lessons I learned, some of them painful, helped me evolve further as a film commenter and scholar. Some of these lessons still have to be played out more fully – and again, this is not in the spirit of TMI (or too much information) but rather in pointing out that the movie that will be screened after this talk, also suffered and continues to suffer from several hard-to-resolve problems.

As everyone here who lived through the middle period of Marcos martial law would remember, Manila by Night was subjected to the worst censorship case ever visited on a Philippine movie. It was banned for nearly a year, disallowed from participating as a competition entry in the Berlin International Film Festival, and released with the longest listing ever of visual cuts and aural deletions. Since all reference to Manila was prohibited, the title itself was changed, to City After Dark. Unknown to the public, the director had intended to prepare a definitive cut for the thwarted Berlin screening. He was discouraged from doing so by the festival director of the Berlinale – although after Imelda Marcos decided that the movie could not be permitted to represent the country on foreign screens, that issue was no longer even relevant from that point onward.

I provide a more extensive explanation of how Ishmael Bernal arrived at the particular stylistic decisions he used during the period when he made Manila by Night, roughly from 1979 to 1981. What matters in our looking back on this same period is how his approach was misconstrued as a lack, an inability to measure up to the level of competence exhibited by his contemporaries, including his friendly rival, Lino Brocka. His stylistic choices, which were drawn from Third-World cinema samples as well as his documentary training and internship, resulted in his being penalized by reviewers as well as the award-giving critics. You have the jaw-dropping anomaly of the group acknowledging Manila by Night as the best film they were privileged to recognize, but Bernal losing the prize for direction. After Brocka made a splash at the Cannes Film Festival, the next Filipino lined up for that supposedly most prestigious of all film venues was a much younger aspirant, rather than the filmmaker who was definitely Brocka’s equal, and in all possibility his superior.

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There is one more historical detail that recently re-emerged, as proof of the queerness of Manila by Night’s existence: Bernal made what we might call Manila by Day – a documentary, rather than a feature film, that upheld rather than critiqued the city, commissioned by Madame Iron Butterfly Imelda Marcos, rather than Mother China, Lily Monteverde. A few netizens expressed disappointment with what Bernal did, since it contrasted with the decision by Lino Brocka and Mike de Leon to boycott anything associated with the Marcos martial-law regime. But this overlooks several matters, from Bernal’s sense of duty in securing the good standing of his producers, to the later news of his active participation in the left underground during and after the people-power uprising of 1986.

So the generally positive development of intensive film study and training in the Philippines, an option unavailable during Bernal’s time, also holds a disadvantage for older critics and historians of film. What we have among us is a generation of film participants and observers not only schooled in film, but also adhering to film-school values without the need to start from a wider historical, cultural, and philosophical analysis of their place in the world – a set of values that an earlier generation like Bernal’s and Bernardo Bernardo’s had no choice except to pursue. Instead of measuring friends by their choices of favorite films or music or books as social-network folks do today, they would start by articulating their social or political positions vis-à-vis urgent local or global issues, and proceed to infer which contemporary or classical philosophers, if any, informed their new acquaintances’ opinions.

Bernal and Bernardo – but if you’ll permit me I’d prefer to call them Ishma and BB respectively, to distinguish between them more easily – were exponents of a queer sensibility way before the word “queer” was recuperated in lesbian and gay activism via the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power’s even more radical breakaway group, Queer Nation. Formed in 1990, the group was credited with reversing the derogatory connotation of the word in mainstream media. The term “queer” is intended for oppositional activism, wherein a practitioner can be anyone who or anything that challenges whatever happens to be the acceptable or decent set of values of the moment. As an example, when I mentioned to BB the word and how it was defined in gender politics, in the context of his self-identification as a gay man who had a few celebrated heterosexual romances, he said, “Then I’m definitely not bisexual, but I’m also more queer than gay.”

We would therefore be correct in describing Manila by Night as a queer text even before New Queer Cinema first emerged in the 1990s. (I would even argue that many of the so-called queer cinema films are really nothing more than rom-coms with same-sex pairings, but that would open up a can of worms that we in this kind of event would not be able to wriggle out of.) Crucial to this description would be the kind of bohemian lifestyle that people like Ishma and BB designed for themselves, and that would be evident in their artistic output. They readily crossed boundaries of class – and gender, in BB’s case – and were consequently fluent in a wide variety of lingos, costumes, mentalities, and professions. To paraphrase Terence, nothing Filipino was alien to them.

Yet Manila by Night possesses a distinction shared in fainter degrees by any number of exceptional Filipino movies, including Bernal’s own follow-up projects. Even by global-cinema standards, one would be hard-put to put together a canon of films with multiple-lead characters whose achievement equals or exceeds Manila by Night’s. Robert Altman’s Nashville, Bernal’s direct inspiration, would be part of that list, as would Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game, Mizoguchi Kenji’s last film Street of Shame, and an obscure Italian title, Liliana Cavani’s La Pelle. These are all multicharacter movies, but they move beyond the depiction of a small group or community that has become one of the standard formats of independent cinema. They make use of types rather than characters, since the number of protagonists is so large that it would be impossible to develop any one of them unless the filmmaker abandons everyone else to focus on a few, sometimes on only one, the singular hero.

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And yet, rather than failing from this inability to provide a classically well-rounded character, these films give us a weird, or shall we say queer, impression that a characterization has been achieved. A characterization that does not reside in any of the characters, but rather in the social impression they create, via their couplings and conflicts, their onscreen interactions and offscreen further developments. The impression we get is that of an abstract super-character, one that we may define according to geography – the city of Nashville in Nashville, Manila in Manila by Night, Tokyo’s Yoshiwara district in Street of Shame, Naples in La Pelle. And because no single character is privileged, it becomes possible to define and redefine society according to the perspective of any character we choose to identify with.

Most people would get the impression that queerness in Manila by Night resides in BB’s character, Manay. BB himself affirmed that Manay was meant to function as the movie’s conscience – an unusual one, considering that this moral center indulged in promiscuity without batting the proverbial eyelash. Yet when we pick out Manay as our reference point, we find that the men he sleeps with are straight-identified, and that the women he tries to help occasionally turn out to be undeserving of his kindness. From Manay and through one of his charity cases, we arrive at the figure of Kano, the lesbian drug pusher, the only character in Manila by Night who (as described by my colleague Libay Linsangan Cantor) is never seen during daytime, much less in a home of her own, so totally liminal that all we can do is guess, from her name and origin in the US naval base, about her parentage and childhood. And as if this experience of trauma weren’t enough, several more come up, one worse than the other.

Ishma took pains to explain that all the unusual events in the film were drawn from his or his friends’ experiences. (I won’t go into too much detail so as to avoid ruining your experience of the revelations in the film.) With Kano, he had no definite real-life model, at least from what I remember. Yet it is Kano who resonates with the burning issue of our time – worsening poverty, homelessness, the drug war and its concomitant extrajudicial executions. In the monograph I wrote for the Queer Films Series of Arsenal Pulp Press, I claimed that Kano, by herself and as a focalizer who allows us to reconfigure the other characters, displays the radical potential described by such lesbian theorists like Judith Butler, Teresa de Lauretis, and Peggy Phelan, who argue in favor of invisibility, constant reinvention, and dangerous sexualization.

All that I would like to point out, by way of ending this elaborate argument, is that these qualities, in a Third-World context, raise the specter of guerrilla resistance. For me, this poses a challenge to scholarly colleagues who assert that nothing of political import arises from Manila by Night. It may be not completed according to the preference of its director, it may suffer from the technical weaknesses inherent in its deployment of unpolished surfaces and improvised performances, it may partake of a nihilistic vision packaged with a comically incongruous happy ending. Like some of the most gifted people we’ve known, Ishma and BB included, it is a difficult movie to love, yet it makes itself impossible to dismiss. Thank you everyone for listening.

Above: The author and Patrick D. Flores await their turn during the program. Below: The author, Angela Stuart-Santiago, and Rodolfo Vera (who performed a reading with Noel Añonuevo) pose before a picture of Ishmael Bernal. (Photos courtesy of Dempster P. Samarista)

(Delivered August 7, 2018, at the Silangan Hall, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Roxas Blvd, Pasay City)

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Innocence Regained

Balangiga: Howling Wilderness
Directed [“not a film”] by Khavn
Written by Jerry Gracio, Achinette Villamor, & Khavn

A small town (now a municipality) on the eastern part of Samar island in the Philippines, Balangiga [balan-HI-ga] was the site of the bloodiest conflict during the Philippine war of resistance against American colonization. In 1901, after the capture of “first President” Emilio F. Aguinaldo allowed Americans to hope that the war was nearing its end, Philippine revolutionaries succeeded in overpowering the 9th Infantry’s Company C soldiers stationed in the town, as a retaliation for the harsh measures it imposed to hasten the process of attrition.[1] Less than 50 Americans were killed, but at that point it was considered the US’s worst overseas defeat, and evoked memories of the then-25-year-old Battle of the Little Big Horn (more popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand), where over 270 American soldiers died.

Little Big Horn had massive and far-reaching consequences for Native American opposition to Manifest Destiny, which by then had transmuted into “Indian removal.” The US’s overseas expansion was also premised on this mystical self-serving belief, with several veterans of the wars against Native Americans participating in the subjugation of the first formal European territory in the Orient, then known as Las Islas Filipinas (translated by the next colonizers as Philippine Islands). General Jacob H. Smith claimed to be one such veteran, but had actually only seen action in the Civil War. Deploying racist and apocalyptic language, he ordered his subordinates to “kill and burn … [all persons] capable of bearing arms” on the entire island of Samar (the third biggest in the Philippines, after Luzon and Mindanao). Smith earned for himself the nickname “Howling” by announcing his intention to turn the island into a “howling wilderness.”

The US Army’s retaliation made American newspapers’ term for the account of the Philippine revolutionaries’ attack, the Balangiga massacre, ironic in contrast. A number of Filipino authors have called the retaliation the burning of Samar (with a 1974 Joey Gosiengfiao movie, scripted by novelist Wilfrido Nolledo, titled Sunugin ang Samar). The entire occurrence makes it the precursor of subsequent American atrocities in Viet Nam and the Middle East, but is lesser known than the later media-covered incidents or even the historical recounting of the “pacification” offensives directed at Native Americans. A recent release, titled Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, is premised on the retaliatory campaign, and made its own mark on local film history by winning best-film prizes in both the original academy as well as the original critics’ competitions. (Both groups have selected only five similar best-picture winners earlier, in over four decades of their rivalrous coexistence.[2] The version of Balangiga that they awarded, and which I also viewed, was a work-in-progress prior to being further trimmed to significantly less than its two-hour running time.) The film is scheduled for theatrical release mid-August in the Philippines and will be screened at a few major (non-Euro) festivals, with US screenings still in the planning stage.

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Balangiga details the flight of an old man and his eight-year-old grandson, from whose perspective and consciousness the entire narrative unfolds.[3] The boy’s name, Kulas, links him with another contemporaneous though older character from an earlier film, Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? [As We Were] (1976); both share the (pre-automotive) road-trip structure encompassing their lead characters’ coming-of-age. But whereas the earlier Kulas was also a dispossessed peasant traversing the turn-of-the-century Philippine countryside, good fortune smiles on him at several points in his journey and adequately prepares him for participating in the anticolonial resistance movement suggested by a benevolent and committed Chinese Filipino that he meets along the way. Balangiga’s Kulas, despite his and his grandfather’s flight from conflict, cuts an even more radical figure. The fact that the movie resolutely refuses to share the feel-good humanism of Ganito Kami Noon and strews the otherwise ravishing landscape with dead mammals (mostly human corpses) is only the starting point in articulating this difference.

What makes Kulas transgressive is the authenticity of his participation in the nightmare of war, whenever the opportunity presents or imposes itself. He saves a toddler, the only survivor in a village massacre, and successfully attacks an American soldier-straggler, by way of avenging the murder of Melchora, his beloved water buffalo. Yet in defiance of the war’s horrific reality, he persists in having playful, though understandably surreal, dreams, and plays childhood games by himself and with Bola, the kid he saved and calls his brother. Balangiga is, in a sense, simply a commemoration of Kulas’s rites of passage – confronting death, rescuing Melchora and Bola from harm, contending with older men’s cruelty, learning to pacify a traumatized infant and cook food properly, ministering to the sick, and burying the dead, among other skills that Filipino children have since then been forced to learn on their own.

The narrative also allows Kulas to be haunted by his memory of the massacre of his hometown, with the still-controversial church bells (confiscated by the US Army but being reclaimed by the Philippine government) worked in seamlessly via some of Kulas’s nightmares. The notion of haunting resonates with several turning points in Philippine history, most eloquently (and just as poignantly) with the still-contemporary reputation of Samar as a rebel-supportive territory during the period of growth of the New People’s Army.[4] The reconfiguration of hauntology to mark the end of Communism as a historical option and its subsequent spectral transformation that reminds resisters of neoliberalism and globalization that the past once held a reason to hope in the future: this may be, in a parallel sense, the lesson of Balangiga as well. The US Army retaliation convinced several anti-colonial fighters that resisting the advance of the Americans was futile, when in fact the Balangiga attack can be seen as one of the most forward-looking acts in the history of guerrilla warfare: the freedom fighters cross-dressed in women’s mourning attire and organized a procession of children’s coffins that actually contained the weapons that would be used in the attack.[5]

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The film’s director, Khavn (whose credit is preceded by “This is not a film by”), has made over fifty feature films and over a hundred film shorts (in a list he titles “This Is Not a Filmography”) since the 1990s. Aside from already being the most prolific Filipino filmmaker at such a relatively youthful age, he also has the distinction of presenting the temporally longest Filipino film, the 13-hour Simulacrum Tremendum, classifiable as a poetic, creative, or hybrid documentary screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2016, with the director accompanying the presentation, on the piano. Self-identifying as punk, Khavn collaborated on Balangiga with his partner, Achinette Villamor, as writer and producer, and the gifted queer author Jerry B. Gracio as co-scriptwriter. Villamor and Gracio are articulate, humorous, and (not surprisingly) unruly social-media influencers, while Khavn prefers a more low-key presence. In one of his rare past interviews, he had extolled the system of independent production for how it had allowed him to be extraordinarily productive; some of his more recent work, Pusong Wazak: Isa Na Namang Kwento ng Pag-ibig sa Pagitan ng Kriminal at Puta [Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory between a Criminal and a Whore] (2014) and Ang Napakaigsing Buhay ng Alipato [Alipato: The Very Brief Life of an Ember] (2016), possibly even more impressive a work than Balangiga, already evince a longing to speak to the Philippine mass audience.

Yet it is Balangiga that manages the feat, with little better than a shoestring budget enhanced by percipient performers and audacious cameos by other Pinoy punk celebrities. Khavn deploys cinematic tricks (stop-motion animation, disorienting lenses, startling drone footage, ghostly superimpositions, etc.) as well as basic special effects that serve to emblematize the childhood world of Kulas. His persistent (though inevitably sordid) humor, tenderhearted embrace of Otherness, and contempt for everything represented by modern existence and its enforcement via wholesale genocidal-if-necessary violence – these make of Balangiga all that Filipinos can claim so far as their retribution for the incredible injustice visited on the country’s distant central island over a century ago. Its triumph as a work of art keeps the memory alive, marks the emergence of the first people’s artist from the high-art Valhalla of European film festivals, and calls for further progressive people’s initiatives that the still-ravaged nation will have to find ways of summoning.

Notes

[1] In a social-media post, Rolando Borrinaga, one of the prime movers in the campaign to recover the bells of Balangiga, recalled “what happened on the afternoon of Sunday, September 22, 1901”:

After a tuba store incident wherein two drunken American soldiers who tried to molest the girl waiting on them were mauled by her two brothers, Capt. Thomas Connell, commander of Company C, 9th US Infantry Regiment, then called for a town meeting and ordered the setting up of two Sibley tents off the northwest corner of the municipal building. When the townspeople had gathered, Connell ordered the arrest of all males, about 143 of them, and their detention overnight under the two tents without food and water. This act started the build-up of tensions that resulted in the famous attack one week later on September 28, 1901 and the subsequent taking of the now-returned bells. (Facebook, December 23, 2018, 7:20 p.m.)

[2] These five were: Celso Ad. Castillo’s Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak [When the Crow Turns White and the Heron Black] (1976); Lino Brocka’s Jaguar (1979); Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal [You Were the Only One I Loved] (1992); Gil Portes’s Mga Munting Tinig [Small Voices] (2002); and Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Magnifico (2003).

[3] “Howling Jake” Smith had originally defined people “capable of bearing arms” as those who were ten years old and above. In the frenzy of carrying out his command, however, US soldiers could no longer allow themselves the luxury of determining the precise age of preteen individuals, or trust the natives’ claims about the ages of their children. Hence a child such as Kulas was in as much danger as any other young teenager, and had to flee the site of carnage that had been his hometown (Facebook Messenger note from Khavn de la Cruz, July 21, 2018).

[4] More than a year prior to the attack by Filipino revolutionaries on the US unit in Balangiga, a guerrilla group laid siege to the town of Catubig, in what is now Northern Samar; the US Army’s efforts to regain control of the island accounted for the harsh measures that built up to the so-called Balangiga massacre (see footnote 1 for a more recent historical insight). From another period, in “The Fate of the People’s War,” an interview with Denis Rogatyuk in Jacobin Mag, José Mariá Sison said of the New People’s Army “that there is always a region which shines during a certain period. It shines in terms of being effective during offensives…. The most conspicuous development was Samar in 1976, with the NPA repeatedly taking over the police stations and construction companies in a few years’ time” (July 28, 2018). The most popular global impression of Samareños derives from the song “Waray-Waray” (recorded by Eartha Kitt and available in her 1965 live album, In Person at the Plaza), which uses the popular term for the people and their language, and reinforces their typology as a hot-headed and always battle-ready ethnic group.

[5] In A Question of Heroes (1977, rpt. Mandaluyong City: Anvil, 2005), Nick Joaquin disputes the “[Gregorio] del Pilar legend: how [in 1897,] he and his men entered Paombong dressed as women, carrying their arms dressed as babies, and heard Sunday mass along with the unsuspecting guardia civil, on whom, at the bell of the Sanctus, they sprang with knife and gun, slaying the Spanish soldiers and making away with their arms” (p. 192). The fact that revolutionary sentiment at the moment of the inception of the nation found cross-dressing a feasible weapon against the invading American troops should require a scholarly treatment of its own.

[First published July 16, 2018, as “Amid the Nightmare of War, a Coming-of-Age” in The FilAm]

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