Sidebar feature: “These Blogs”

The WordPress blogsite allows its members to list their favorite blogs as a sidebar feature. Since I’d been observing blogs long before I started my own, I thought of paying closer attention to blogs like my own: those on Philippine cinema, with ongoing critical projects (as broadly defined as possible). But then I couldn’t focus on the selection activity as a project in itself, especially since I stopped handling Philippine-film courses on a regular basis. For that reason, I put off finalizing a personal “canon” of preferred Pinoy-film blogsites, until I needed a special-features sidebar that allowed its users to incorporate other available features in WordPress’s store of special functions (called widgets).

I started, like most other bloggers I knew, by listing the websites of the people I was familiar with. Then I realized that these people knew other people, and that’s how I expanded the list. I also included sites that did not aim to produce commentaries per se, for as long as I could argue that they exhibited critical awareness (including reflexive abilities). I was also somewhat surprised – saddened, actually – that some of my earlier favorites did not seem active any longer. I took out the ones that had no postings since the previous year (specifically from January 1, 2016, to the present), and uploaded an early version of the list on the social network. From the comments of friends and acquaintances, I was able to add three more blogsite titles, and since these features constitute a movable feast, I’m determined to adjust the sidebar’s contents at least once a year.

Anyone who wishes to suggest blog titles that I might have overlooked is welcome to do so. I cannot guarantee that I can accommodate any recommendation, but as long as the website in question deals with Philippine cinema in a critical manner, and has been active at least up to last year, I promise to take a closer look. Kindly provide me with the information at Amauteurish!’s Contacts page. (You may also opt to explain why any specific blog should not be included – again with the prior understanding that I may or may not be persuaded. I will also guarantee one answer, the first one, to your message, but I cannot engage in extensive conversations about these matters, since that is not my purpose in maintaining this website.)


Peerless Vampire Killers

Vampariah
Directed & written by Matthew Abaya

In contrast with politics, the consensus among Filipinos is that 2016 has been an unqualified triumph for cinema. Not only did we have a second major prize at the Cannes Film Festival, we also won big at A-list European and Asian filmfests, topped by the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Even if we concede that using foreign acclaim as a measure of achievement might be problematic, the output of local film artists has been no less appreciable. Whatever else one’s position on Rodrigo Duterte might be, one will have to acknowledge that the first Metro Manila Film Festival during his presidency recalled the better MMFF editions of the Marcos years – which were some of the few positive contributions the dictatorship ever made.

Because of my status as an Overseas Filipino Worker, it takes me a while before I could watch all the significant Pinoy film releases of any given year. The unusual distinction of 2016 is that no single film, or even a couple or three, is or are front-running for that dubious credit of being “year’s best.” Even if one extends this insight further, by including Filipino films made outside the country, one could still have a noteworthy sample like Baby Ruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen, a documentary made in Hong Kong that turned out to be the MMFF’s surprise winner.

My own contribution to the list of memorable titles in the batch of 2016 is from even farther afield, a movie made in the US by Fil-Am talents, tackling the usual issues of national identity and alienation, but using the unexpectedly “trashy” genre of horror, in its even more reviled goth-punk configuration. Titled Vampariah, the film, directed and written by Matthew Abaya, has been earning raves from viewers who had seen it in various US festivals (including San Francisco’s FACINE, where I first watched it as the event’s closing film, and where Abaya’s short films had been screened over the past two decades). In resorting to a format that had proved useful for a long list of discourses on Otherness, Abaya manages to break out of the usual Fil-Am film’s stifling and predictable realist mode, and kicks open a Pandora’s box of lower mythology, colonial excess, racialized cross-cultural conflict, volatility of identity and desire, and (literally) posthuman development.

Vampariah was intended as an expanded version of Abaya’s short film “Bampinay.” In Abaya’s full-length debut, Bampinay becomes one of two lead characters – or, one could also argue, half of one. The title more likely refers to Mahal, a Fil-Am vampire hunter who sets out to avenge her parents’ death by tracking a specific type of supernatural predator, one that has started attracting the attention of American celebrity ghosthunters. The most notable instance of the latter is that of John Bates (a “whitesplainer,” per Abaya) of Crypt Hunter, who keeps hilariously enunciating “ass-wang” – the Midwestern twang makes it sound even more risqué – before being unceremoniously devoured on-cam. While wondering why her minder refuses to grant her more challenging assignments despite her superior vampire-killing abilities, Mahal manages to track down a particularly pernicious manananggal (a self-segmenting viscera-sucker) from a rural town through Manila to San Francisco.

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The monstrous entity in question turns out to be Bampinay, and it would be no big surprise for horror aficionados to predict that hunter and hunted discover that they have more in common than they realize. Their sisterly bromance (womance?) is in many ways preferable to the guilt-ridden treatments in more famous samples such as Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971) and Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), while the 300-year-old Bampinay’s critique of colonial history, derived from firsthand experience, would be the envy of the bloodsucking dissertation candidate in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995). Vampariah herself calls to mind a whole lot of other generic predecessors, notably the title character in Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998) and Selene in Len Wiseman’s Underworld (2003).

The intertextual possibilities in Vampariah are even more extensive than the titles I’ve listed, an inherent attraction of the typical B-movie product. Yet where the B-movie generally rests on this attribute, Vampariah takes the extra step of inculcating an awareness of local and regional cross-references, a challenge that can best be formulated and achieved by our mixed-blood compatriots. Not since the Blood-Island movies of Eddie Romero and Gerardo de Leon have there been alien monsters (not necessarily a redundancy) in Filipino horror films, and if for nothing else, Vampariah deserves to be remembered for featuring a first-ever showdown between a manananggal and a jiangshi, an East Asian reanimated corpse that moves around by hopping and that extracts qi or the life force from human victims.

The film’s ultimate achievement is in its exploitation of the genre’s ability to conjoin disparate ideas and sentiments in order to enhance what would otherwise be difficult or unpalatable messages. Vampariah distracts the potentially hedonistic and self-involved millennial audience with a surfeit of humor, surprises, frights, and irreverence, if not outright profanity. What this nonstop delirium effectively enshrouds is a pathos of profound proportions, ensconced in the permanently diasporic condition of individuals who can never be considered fully human anywhere they go, and who figure out ways of coping by wisecracking and ass-kicking their way through a hostile environment – whether that happens to be the home country from which they had fled or the host country that resents their presence as Others. If anyone had told me that a film embodied a certain Derridean principle, I would have steeled myself for an encounter with barely bearable high-art perorations; yet the demonstration in Vampariah of hauntology, of nostalgia in permanently effaced futures and possibilities, would be capable of sustaining a paper, perhaps even an entire panel, in a high-powered academic conference.

Abaya thus takes full advantage of the B-movie’s subversive potential as well as its ability to supply guilty pleasure, and the sadness in the experience of watching this fine little sweetmeat is in the awareness that it may be destined to subsist in the liminal world that its own characters inhabit. (Anyone who finds out that a game based on the film is currently under development would find the notion amusing yet logical.) But then we can always take heart in Bampinay’s assurance to Mahal that “We’re aswangs. We can do anything.” In the perfect world that these intrepid characters envision, they and people like them would be perfectly capable of dominating cinema screens everywhere. If the movie happens to breeze by your vicinity, don’t hesitate to give these ravishing monsters your (life)time. It would be a drop-dead occasion that could reanimate any vestige of movie love you still possess.

[First published January 13, 2017, as “Vampariah as Subversive Aswang Film” in The FilAm]

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Times Journal interview

In 1991, a few months after The National Pastime was published and a few weeks after it was launched, I was interviewed for a now-defunct daily, the Times Journal. The session was a one-shot two-hour exchange that took place at the office of what was then the Film Department (now the Film Institute) of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication. Not all the points I wished to raise about film criticism came out, but then the purpose of the exercise (arranged by Anvil Publishing) was to publicize the book rather than raise issues.

tj-interview

Distinguishing the Film Critic from the Reviewer
Vanessa B. Ira

Since I grew up reading film reviews before the much-endorsed literary classics, it became my lifelong obsession to find out just what “film reviewers” are. They analyze current movies, fine, but if this were so, where do the “film critics” come in? What is a film “reviewer” and what is a film “critic”?

A call from Joel David, University of the Philippines film professor and author of a new book of “over 50 reviews” called The National Pastime, allowed for either the validation or demolition of personal guesses, observations, and biases. Since I was sure I’d never be the same after an authority set straight my thinking on the matter, I scribbled some of these views, as they say, for posterity.

I repeat, the following definitions are “pre-Joel David,” and do not at all reflect his views or opinions:

Film reviewers use the “I” more than the film critic – draw your own conclusions from here. The word for film critics is “intense,” the words for film reviewers are “casually passionate” (especially when they’re doing the worst of the worst Regal movies).

The film critics’ language takes some getting used to (“putative,” “proferred,” “decontextualizes”) while the film reviewers’ is like, well, ya know, like this. Film critics are name-droppers, film reviewers are “phrase-coiners.”

Film critics are long-distance runners, film reviewers are quick-writes. Film reviewers have more fun and it shows, film critics may have fun doing what they’re doing but refuse to show it. Film reviewers write for moviegoers while film critics write for film critics and film students. Film critics are “teacher-types” while film reviewers are “student-types.”

To be sure, I read the distinguished professor’s (there, I sound like a critic) book before the interview. I did not wish to go out there in UP territory lambasting film “critics” or “reviewers” only to find out that Joel David was one or the other. To be sure too, I asked him point-blank what he calls himself.

“I prefer the badge of honor [to be called a] film critic,” David answered my question.

From there, he distinguished the reviewer from the critic.

“The more serious of film students would probably appreciate critics’ writings more,” David said. “Then again, reviews and criticisms serve different purposes. Reviews show how a person responded to a film so there is this tendency to become personalistic. There is also the tendency for reviewers to get known.”

A critic, on the other hand, owes it to himself to be critical of his own subjectivity. Ideas matter more than any reference to the personal. As a critic, one has the option to “defer judgment.” In a way, one must humble oneself.

If one were to draw two extremes, David, explained, reviewing is to journalism as criticism is to film theory and the application thereof. So it is that there are more expectations for film critics to have some sort of a film education.

The last point was particularly intriguing. I had always wondered how local film critics felt about treating in all seriousness an industry which generally refuses to take itself seriously. In short, isn’t a painstakingly written critique of Pido Dida much ado about nothing? Absurd?

Joel David came alive and caused us to unexpectedly veer away from the original topic of the interview. From thereon, we talked about the film critics in our society. The professor lamented that some local reviewers make their analyses using Hollywood standards. This isn’t practical in a nation that cannot afford slick-looking movies.

“We’re asking Filipino reviewers not to question in the traditional way,” David said. “Because if you do, you’ll wind up condemning the taste of the masses. We cannot rely purely on aesthetics.”

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The goal is to understand Filipino culture and society even better by turning to different approaches in evaluating our films. It works this way: You don’t, for instance, write that “Maging Sino Ka Man is a commercial film that teams up the komiks queen Sharon [Cuneta] with the number one action star Robin [Padilla]. She screams, he hardly talks, just grunts.”

The way of the (local) critic is to take note of the last few box-office hits and compare them with this latest one. What do they have in common?

The way of the critic is to note that Maging Sino Ka Man and Pido Dida have leading men who are poles apart from their leading ladies in character and in looks. That they have politicians’ kids – Kris Aquino and Sharon Cuneta – carrying the films. What does this say then about showbiz and politics in this country? How do these affect the moviegoing habits of the Pinoy?

“Then too, critics should be aware of the aesthetics of poverty,” David said. “It’s a matter of their compensating in other areas such as storytelling, subject matter, and treatment.”

Readers of Joel David’s collection of reviews will recognize the critic’s standards. The reviews in The National Pastime: Contemporary Cinema were written over a ten-year period, since the time David was graduated from UP with a second degree in Film.

“I was supposed to cover film press previews,” he recalled his earlier days. “But because I was usually late for the events, I’d end up reviewing the movies.”

The officers of the Manunuri [ng Pelikulang Pilipino, or the Filipino Film Critics Circle] liked David’s reviews so much that they invited him to join.

“Of all the local critics,” David said, “ I admire Bien Lumbera the most. He came at a time culture, not to mention film, was not taken seriously. He came at a time when the criteria for judging cultural pieces were Western-oriented. But Lumbera rose above that.

“He came up with the insight that one way of understanding Tagalog films is by relating them to traditional forms of Pinoy entertainment such as the zarzuela and bodabil.”

Whenever he thinks of Lumbera, David realizes that his own struggle wasn’t as momentous. David and his colleagues from the recently formed Young Critics Circle come at a time when Filipinos are conscious of defining their identity.

Said David: “We may be semi-confused, but we also have to accept that we are still young culturally. It’s really a matter of determining who we are.”

Isn’t it ironic, I asked, that as the rest of the world is gearing itself for life in the so-called Global Village, here we are, turning inward, and perhaps even defensive about anything not Filipino?

“Not really,” David said. “If we were to compete in international film festivals, for example, we would stand out by showing what makes us unique from the rest of the world. You become interesting to the foreign crowd that way.”

Speaking of filmmaking, does a good critic necessarily make a good movie maker?

“We owe it to ourselves to at least know how to make films, and to actually make them, so we don’t just tear other people’s films apart in our reviews.”

But does this hold true for that other kind of film judge – the film “reviewer”? Find out as soon as we discover ones willing to speak for their sort.

[First published March 12, 1991, in Times Journal]

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Pop Culture and Halalan 2016

When it comes to popular culture trends, the Philippines appears to be mimicking its former colonizer, the US, in some ways, and leading it in other ways, usually by resisting or overturning the trends the latter sets. The recently concluded presidential election provides fertile ground to study these older possibilities as well as a number of newer ones. As most observers would have known by now, Rodrigo Duterte won the race by replicating Barack Obama’s folk appeal on social media, but also unnervingly appropriated Donald Trump’s exploitation of rage and discontent among the citizenry. Those old enough to remember could point to Ferdinand Marcos’s wily use of audiovisual media (with his wife Imelda as main accessory), reminiscent of John F. Kennedy’s feat in projecting a televised image of charm and intelligence. Marcos went further in taking the extra step of commissioning an increasingly fraudulent series of film hagiographies (the last one, Jerr Hopper’s Maharlika, was never released during his regime because it featured Dovie Beams, the mistress whose affair with Marcos ended in lurid scandal).

The connection between pop culture and electoral politics is more than incidental. For the past two years, Philippine cultural workers and commentators had been resorting to social media outlets in order to register their frustration with the negligence that President Benigno Simeon “PNoy” Aquino III had been devoting to their areas of concern. In a way PNoy was merely taking after his mother’s supercilious dismissal of culture (“not a priority” of her government, according to her spokesperson) – but without the crisis situation that had made Cory Aquino’s attitude more understandable, if not justifiable.

The turning point that consolidated netizens’ malcontent with Aquino’s high-handedness toward people’s preferences occurred in 2014, in his indefensible rejection of the cultural sector’s unanimous nomination of Nora Aunor as National Artist, with his representative advancing embarrassingly petulant reasons for his decision. In a matter of days, various “Nora Aunor for National Artist” group pages proliferated on Facebook – and a number of independent institutions, some of them government agencies, defiantly presented Aunor with life-achievement awards.

The subsequent “viral” pop-culture events, both of them in 2015, were not as overtly critical of the Aquino administration as the National Artist brouhaha, but they did indicate an increasing preference for intensive and enlightening exchanges, alongside the usual expressions of class hysteria and religious dogma. The noontime television phenomenon known as AlDub, a possibly inimitable postmodern improvisation of the budding romance between the fictional dubsmashing Girl Friday of Lola Inodora (a cross-dressed male actor) named Yaya Dub and real-life heartthrob Alden Richards, yielded its own unique coinage, kalyenovela, and demonstrated for observers the importance of timing and the provision of entertainment, as well as the unpredictability of the public’s behavior.

The most recent major pop-culture sample in social media was the slow but relentless buildup toward blockbuster status of Jerrold Tarog’s historical epic, Heneral Luna. The exhortations among netizens to take the risk of watching a period film about a barely remembered hotheaded figure from the eve of the revolution against Spain seemed at first like a localized version of the call for help for the disaster victims of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Again, the pop-culture component provided unexpected appeal, since the movie yielded not just urgent political insights but also galloping (if generic) entertainment.

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Hence the onset of the Philippine presidential campaign felt like all these events rolled into one, with elements of plot twists, outsize characters, fan-like devotion, and unpredictable-though-expected resolution suffusing the proceedings. The major takeaway was the contentious morality question of which candidate was the actual heroic figure (thereby rendering all the others villainous). When the dust had settled, for the presidential contest at least, the first point that everyone could agree on was remarkable: the candidate who had most successfully utilized social media won.

More intensive studies of the electoral exercise will have to be conducted, although at the moment, one can make certain provisional conclusions. The Duterte campaign team prepared a few years in advance on precisely the premise that social media would be crucial, probably taking a page or two from the Obama campaign (personal disclosure: I voted for neither Duterte nor the LP candidate, Mar Roxas). The timing they displayed was impeccable, with Duterte the last to emerge as candidate, thus tipping the hand of the ruling Liberal Party in implementing its series of demolition jobs against the other candidates. When Duterte’s turn came, the candidate counter-intuitively led the charge against himself, admitting extrajudicial killings, dressing nonchalantly and cursing casually, supporting the Marcoses, disrespecting the Pope, Western ambassadors, and rape victims; the image generally contradicted his public-service record as humble and devoted mayor of the most successfully managed city in the country, and made the LP’s efforts against him seem like the hypocritical posturing of the privileged class – precisely the effect that the campaign team must have intended.

The deplorable result of the exchanges between Duterte followers and (primarily) LP supporters is that most netizens were drawn into taking positions for one or the other side and suffered the trauma of hate-based fundamentalist rhetoric; Facebook members announced May 10, the day after elections, as “friendship day,” although certain rifts would likely take longer than a day to heal. To provide a contrast, the vice-presidential race, which was even more of a nail-biter in its head-to-head match between the LP candidate and Marcos’s son, was conducted with exemplary exchanges, even humor. When Marcos supporters claimed that the results demonstrated the occurrence of cheating, several genuine statisticians came forward and ran extensive tests with careful methodological explications from more complete datasets to prove that the allegations were unlikely to be true. As an amusing sidelight, other netizens engaged in a Twitter-generated slash fiction imagining queer encounters between the President-elect’s hunky surfer son, Baste, and Marcos’s slow-witted scion, Sandro, with the other candidates’ sons in supporting roles; by creatively deploying cues that designated who between the two was the actual object of desire, the authors subtly indicated their preference for Duterte and their (occasional) contempt for Marcos.

The primary issue in the next round of election campaigns would not be whether any candidate can ignore the function and importance of social media, but whether the hurtful, bruising level of personal attacks can be minimized, if not avoided. Perhaps the winning candidate might be the one who resists these unproductive tendencies? Again, close observation of future pop-culture phenomena might prove instructive.
[First published May 15, 2016, as “How Pop Culture, Social Media Played a Role in Halalan 2016” in The FilAm]

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A Festival in Flux

The Metro Manila Film Festival is one of those annual exercises where the public can be guaranteed some displays of controversy. The 2016 edition is distinctive, in that the controversy has started this early, before the event itself has commenced. As a way of reminding (warning, in fact) ourselves that 2016 has been a year of incivility, the exchanges even reached the level of name-calling on the social network. Moreover, reminiscent of this year’s presidential election, the sector that felt marginalized in the past is the one now raising a hue and cry.

This kind of controversy has an immediate benefit, in the sense that the public’s attention has been focused on the issue of worthiness. But since mostly extreme sides of the issue are being articulated, we wind up with polarized perspectives once more (as we did during the election). On the one hand, the producers complain that this year’s batch of entries has no family-friendly fare, by which they presumably mean genre films, especially children’s movies. On the other hand, the indie-supportive group (including the selection committee) asserts that the festival had abandoned the pursuit of quality for too long, so this year would be as good as any to provide an opportunity for “serious” cinema to have a fighting chance in mainstream venues.

It did not take long for what we may call the commerce side (as opposed to the arts side) to strategize in favor of their own releases, which were excluded from the 2016 MMFF lineup. First was their announcement of a pre-festival exhibition, which in effect mimicked the previous MMFF editions: sequels of the usual franchises (Enteng Kabisote and Mano Po, though no Shake, Rattle and Roll), a horror film, a melodrama, and the latest bromantic outing of the reliable Vice-Coco tandem. Another blow came in the form of exempting non-Metro Manila theaters from exhibiting only 2016 MMFF entries during the festival period.

The lesson here is that when art and business, like ideals and politics, are forced into a life-or-death struggle, art (like ideals) won’t stand a chance. In fact, for a too-long spell about a decade ago, “commercial appeal” was introduced as a major criterion for selecting the best-film winners. You can bet that if all the other non-commercial standards could be safely eliminated, the MMFF’s administrators would have done so yesterday.

One would have to peer far into the mists of history to see that this all-or-nothing perspective was not always the case. In fact, nearly four decades ago, the MMFF (then only on its third year) featured works that were regarded as entirely prestige projects: a literary anthology, a social-problem film, a contemplation on the consequences of violence, a period political drama, a critique of performing arts, another critique of family values, a coming-of-age narrative, a cautionary tale on addiction, a crime-of-passion saga.[1] Yet these films had the era’s top stars, sufficient doses of sex and violence, feel-good moments still remembered fondly by those who’d watched the screenings, plus at least one stone classic and definitive performance in the same entry, Vilma Santos in Celso Ad. Castillo’s Burlesk Queen (1977).

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That MMFF also happened to be the first controversial one, but the firestorm had more to do with the awards process than with the selection of entries. The best-film winner also became the top-grosser, a trend that has persisted in more cases than we care to remember, since most of the more recent MMFF editions made a spectacle out of outdoing each previous year’s box-office performance. In a sense, we can lament that that period, where commerce and prestige could coexist in the same project, may be next-to-impossible to recapture; non-MMFF crossover cases like Aureus Solito’s Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (2005) or Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna (2015) would actually be so rare (in relation to the substantial number of indie releases per year) that these would be exceptions that prove the rule.

Before we conclude that there is absolutely nothing to be said for producers, I would suggest that we look at the political economy of the festival itself. The MMFF is the only period in the Philippine calendar when local productions are guaranteed protection from foreign competition – and this protection is the highest possible, 100 percent. (To give credit where it’s due, the Marcos administration valiantly resisted pressure from the Motion Picture Association of America to dispense with this arrangement.) Thus Philippine releases experience a schizophrenic situation, from zero protection during the rest of the year to full protection during the festival’s ten-day run. If we think in terms of producers, not only in maximizing personal profits, but also in sustaining companies where entire families depend on the regularity of assignments, then the impulse to take hold of this opportunity becomes more rationalizable.

But once more, we have to ask: why settle for such a polarized system? A year-round screen quota like that of Korea, where theaters are required to exhibit local films at a 20-percent rate (or 73 out of 365 days), is acknowledged by observers as the primary reason why Korean movies continue to feature the very same property that we once enjoyed, where films with serious themes and messages still had the objective and the potential to connect with broad sectors of the mass audience. Local Korean products compete with foreign imports all the time, but since they’re guaranteed a long-enough run to make their mark, they seek to outdo the (mainly Hollywood-sourced) foreign films in terms of purveying sense and pleasure, and take advantage of the filmmakers’ homegrown orientation. The filmmakers as well make an effort to figure out the audience’s concerns and anxieties, instead of dismissing local screenings in favor of Western (especially European) film festivals.

This then may be an area where both producers and artists in the Philippines can see common ground: a revival of film-protectionist efforts. Yes, a revival: believe it or not, right after the aforementioned 1977 MMFF, a bill was introduced during the Marcos-era legislature by Assemblyperson Gualberto Lumauig (now a retired professor).[2] It proposed, among other things, a modest screen-quota system, but was predictably shot down by the intervention of the MPAA’s Jack Valenti. It might even be worth giving up the 100-percent Pinoy-film quota of the MMFF, if this dynamic of oscillating between not-for-profit indie filmfests and the for-profit-only MMFF can be moderated (once more) into the year-round pursuit of audience-accessible prestige projects.

Notes

[1] These descriptors refer respectively to the following 1977 entries: Joey Gosiengfiao’s Babae… Ngayon at Kailanman, Augusto Buenaventura’s Bakya Mo Neneng, Eddie Romero’s Banta ng Kahapon, Mario O’Hara & Romy Suzara’s Mga Bilanggong Birhen, Celso Ad. Castillo’s Burlesk Queen, Lino Brocka’s Inay, Mike de Leon’s Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising, Gil Portes’s Sa Piling ng mga Sugapa, and Ishmael Bernal’s Walang Katapusang Tag-araw.

[2] See Nestor U. Torre Jr.’s “Lumauig Bill: Pro and Con,” in The Urian Anthology 1970-1979, ed. Nicanor G. Tiongson (Manila: Morato, 1983): 86-93.

[First published December 22, 2016, as “MMFF: A Festival in Flux” in Philippine Daily Inquirer]

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Gawad Lingap Sining citation

The 23rd Annual Filipino International Cine Festival

Filipino Arts & Cinema International (FACINE)
is pleased to honor
Professor Jose Hernani S. David
with the
Gawad Lingap Sining
Art Nurturing Award

for his exemplary work in Filipino film criticism and scholarship. His writings on Filipino cinema are widely considered as original, provocative, and insightful, with remarkable awareness of the contending yet complementary forces of the artistic pursuit of the filmmaker and the prerogatives of the mass audience; and his firm belief that film criticism is important in the development of film culture in the Philippines and elsewhere.

Given this 18th day of October in the year 2016,
on the occasion of
FACINE/23: the 23rd Annual Filipino International Cine Festival
held on October 18, 2016,
at the Diego Rivera Theater, City College of San Francisco,
and on October 19-22, 2016,
at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, California, USA.

(Sgd.) Mauro Feria Tumbocon, Jr.
Founder/Director, FACINE


President Duterte’s War on Drugs

pspd-announcement PSPD announcement

I’d like to thank all of you who made time to be here to listen to this short lecture on a major development, possibly the first turning point, in the Philippines’s history in the twenty-first century. Thanks as well to the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy for having the patience to stand by when I said earlier this year that I didn’t feel prepared to talk about my country’s newly elected President, Rodrigo Duterte. That was because I remained in Korea for most of the previous winter break to be able to work on a book project, and returned to the Philippines during summer to get a feel of ground-level sentiment. I still don’t feel fully confident about what I can say about the current presidential regime, but I might be able to have a better sense now, about a few matters that might remain intangible even to native intellectuals.

The so-called War on Drugs by Mr. Duterte has been attributed to a number of causes, only one of which can be confirmed with finality. That single cause would be the psychological reason, and like all psychological case studies, it is framed by a narrative: Sebastian, or Bastê, the younger son of Digong (the nickname of Mr. Duterte) was supposedly seriously addicted to illegal drugs and almost permanently ruined by his habit. Upon witnessing Bastê’s suffering, his father decided to wage a merciless battle against drug personalities – providers, suppliers, even addicts – until the problem would be exterminated from the face of the earth, or at least the city of Davao when he was mayor, and now the Republic of the Philippines during his presidency.

Like most originary narratives, this tale has a legendary dimension to it, and this quality serves to invest Mr. Duterte’s anti-drug campaign with the aura of a crusade: not merely a war, but a just and holy war. But legends in modern contexts also allow leaders a significant amount of leeway, if they manage to convince their followers of the legend’s righteousness and provoke a sufficient degree of cultural anxiety: witness the panic over racial impurity propagated by Adolf Hitler, or the worry over big-government intervention stoked by Ronald Reagan, or the decline of American supremacy proclaimed by Donald Trump. About a hundred miles away in this same peninsula, we have Kim Jong-un, whose very existence is premised on an assumption of a legendary, or maybe even super-legendary, persona.

The implication we can derive from these examples is that originary narratives are useful in seizing the imagination of a leader’s followers, but any political problem that results from it cannot be solved on the level of cultural resistance alone, by demolishing or deconstructing the legend, for example. In the case of Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs, we are confronted by a number of predicaments, and I wish to focus on three of these, each one related to the others, and all of them involving the Duterte administration in confrontation with a small but articulate and well-publicized opposition:

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First, the unsolved killings that have resulted, more than half of over three thousand as of last count and still rising, are declared as extrajudicial and state-sanctioned by the opposition, while the Duterte administration denies its involvement in them and declares these cases as “under investigation”;

Second, the human-rights issue in the killings is considered fairly cut-and-dried by the opposition, wherein the murdered individuals are deprived of due process and are therefore victims of human-rights violations; the administration’s apologists, on the other hand, are reaching for essential redefinitions of the term “human rights” to cover the rights of upright citizens against criminal violations, as well as the applicability of human rights to developed situations only; and

Third, the rash of killings is regarded by certain sectors of the opposition as one element in a larger schema, one where the administration promotes peace with armed rebel groups, pivots away from the country’s long-term Western alliances to turn toward China and Russia, and forms a largely unopposed and popular dictatorial government. This return of repressed tyranny, according to this scenario, is strengthened by coalitions with orthodox Communists, Islamic militants, and business figures, distinct from the oligarchic families that once agitated for the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos thirty years ago.

From my semi-amateurish observations of social media and occasional dialogues with sensible figures on both pro-administration and opposition sides, I would say that the opposition has more solid footing in the case of the first two issues, involving the legality of the killings and their human-rights component. The administration may deny that it had approved some or even all of the killings, but Mr. Duterte had gone on record, during his campaign and after he became President, that he wanted to see all drug personalities dead. This sweeping statement definitely included addicts, regardless of the conventional perception that, like his son Bastê, they may have been merely victims of drug lords and pushers. In terms of human rights, the administration’s supporters tend to suffer from a fanaticism and/or euphoria that affects their ability to follow rational and critical thought processes. This accounts for their unnecessary complication of the concept of human rights – a concept that has been and should be formulated as simply as possible in order for it to be universally applicable.

What shows up in these two problems are characteristics that mark both Mr. Duterte and his followers, and make any attempt at evaluating contemporary Philippine politics convoluted and probably impossible to resolve – and even more difficult to confront directly, as US President Barack Obama found out when Duterte lashed out at him. We have what appears to be a predilection for contradictory statements expressed with expletives and obscenities on the part of the President, and echoed in many of his followers, who it seems derive license and inspiration to also be rude and illogical in their encounters with less-devoted observers.

The third issue is where the differences between the administration and the opposition acquire some historical resonance. When oppositionists warn that Duterte may be laying the groundwork for the declaration of martial law, they are raising the specter of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, whom Duterte considers the “best president” the country ever had. Here we may argue that Duterte is outright deluded, unless by “best” we mean the ability to plunder the national economy while depriving entire sectors of society of not just their basic freedoms, but sometimes even their lives. Duterte made this statement during his campaign, so it may have been possible that he was courting the support of the Ilocano-speaking northern provinces. From his mother’s record as anti-Marcos activist, he may have had enough awareness that the Philippine experiment with dictatorship was the only instance in Asia where a once-prosperous country had wound up impoverished as a result. Even Indonesia, which supposedly had a worse case of plunder during the term of Suharto, managed to join the Asian developing nations’ circle while he was still in power.

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Explanations for the Philippines’s developmental travails are more complicated than simply stating that the country had a rapacious and self-deluded tyrant at the helm, but that should be a topic for another session. The real issue in terms of the irreconcilability between Duterte’s followers and his critics is the same entity that provided the first and most sustained opposition to Marcos before and during martial law: the Philippine Left, which used to be unified under the Communist Party and its legal organization, the National Democratic Front. After the Party found itself marginalized by the people-power uprising that ousted Marcos, internal criticisms directed at its leadership intensified and came to a head when the Party members were divided between those who supported the founding leadership, called reaffirmists or RAs, and the rejectionists or RJs.

Both sides had their party-list candidates as well as prominent personalities who participated in the post-Marcos electoral processes. But during the presidency prior to Duterte’s, the RJs aligned themselves with social democrats and became identified with the winning candidate, Benigno “PNoy” Aquino III. In a dramatic political turnaround, the RAs cast their lot during the previous election with Duterte, who won by castigating Aquino and his party for their anti-people policies. In many ways, the residue of this mutually destructive struggle between Left-identified groups dominates the responses to Duterte. The reaffirmists are being upheld by the present administration via the nearly concluded peace talks, while the most extreme among the rejectionists argue that Duterte is unsuited for the presidency and that the Vice President, Leni Robredo, should be upheld in his stead. (To her credit, Robredo maintains critical support for Duterte and repudiates the clamor to install her as Duterte’s replacement.)

Thus the prevailing attitudes toward Duterte disavow any middle ground. The few people I know who come from either the pro-Digong or anti-Digong camp, who opt to criticize Duterte without advocating for his overthrow, get shouted down, sometimes abusively, by their own friends, and get accused of selling out to the other camp. On my own Facebook posts, I get identified sometimes as a Duterte supporter or “dutertard,” other times as an apologist for Aquino’s yellow-wearing Liberal Party or “yellowtard.” In terms of the killings, one could not argue for long that the President should reverse his policy and attend to the other demands of his office. Either you accept the President and agree that all the killings are justified, or you denounce the killings and automatically conclude that this President should be replaced.

This is ironic for Left-leaning individuals, who should possess the capacity for critical thinking and complex analysis, but that is the point where we find the state of Philippine politics at this time. Thank you for listening, and I hope to be able to find possible insights and solutions from your responses.

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The Original Post of the National University’s Roundtable on Film Criticism

The vol. 13, no. 1 (2016) issue of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication’s journal, Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society, initially uploaded a file for “A Round Table [sic] Discussion on Poetics and Practice of Film Criticism,” which met with some derision among netizens for its errors in transcription. As a consequence, the editorial staff withdrew and revised the file in question. Unfortunately, the current version dispensed with the original’s open-forum section. Inasmuch as the timing of the roundtable was arguably in response to my article “A Lover’s Polemic,” I have claimed the prerogative to upload a PDF copy of the original file on Amauteurish! – with an appeal to readers to refrain from remarking on the quality of the transcription. The file appears here primarily for the roundtable participants’ responses during the open forum.


Cold Word Wars: Philippine Film as a Critical Activity

 

2016 FACINE Gawad Lingap Sining Lecture
Diego Rivera Theater, City College of San Francisco
October 18, 2016
diego-rivera-stage
(Photo courtesy of Daniel Park)

Many thanks to Filipino Arts & Cinema International, Philippine American Writers and Artists, and the Philippine Studies Department of the City College of San Francisco, plus an additional expression of gratitud y apreciación to the memory of the great Diego Rivera. I might as well provide a necessary personal disclosure in case you might wonder: Mauro Tumbocon Jr. and I have been acquaintances since the early 1980s, when I was working with the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines and he was with a pharmaceutical company, writing film reviews and articles on the side. We mirrored each other’s experiences as members of the Filipino Film Critics Circle, and when we found out we had similar misgivings about the group, we set out to found alternate critics’ groups. One of them, the Young Critics Circle, is still active to this day. We have had some differences, as all healthy friendships should have, but I think our similarities always somehow enable us to surmount them. Just don’t get us started talking about our goddess, Nora Aunor.

I had originally planned to look into what we may describe as trouble spots in the course of the development of film criticism in the Philippines, but as I understand, this venue, the City College of San Francisco, has both a film program and a Philippine Studies program. I also read up once more some of the basic texts, mostly on literary criticism by Terry Eagleton, but these seemed too distant and quaint today, except for a fairly recent text titled Outside Literature, by Tony Bennett[1] – the Australian professor, not the Italian-American crooner. In the end I decided to just confine my lecture to the less-obscure controversies that people in this setting might be able to recognize. Not to go too far off-tangent, but if you’ve been monitoring developments in the Philippines, you might have noticed that people there have been polarized since the election campaign period that started a year ago, and the situation has never eased up, and probably even worsened. There are two main voices: one, the newly empowered, or some might say re-empowered, people in the administration of Rodrigo Duterte; and another, the group of people identified with the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III, who see themselves as marginalized by the present government.

For me, the predicament is a simple one. If you object to certain or all of the current government’s policies, could you still be called a supporter of the Duterte administration? The way that the existing discourse has worked out, the answer is no. Either you’re pro-Duterte and accept everything he had set out to do, including discarding due process for drug suspects and restoring Ferdinand Marcos to a position of prestige, or you object to these two things, plus maybe Duterte’s propensity for cursing and appointing some less-than-stellar officials, and advocate for his impeachment so he can be replaced with a more “acceptable” option. Now I’ve witnessed the overthrow of two Philippine Presidents in the past, and the aftermath has never been lovely – sometimes it even gets worse in some ways than before. But I also cannot abide people getting killed just because of a problem that is really social and psychological in nature, and that has been solved in other countries only by radically turning its premise upside down and legalizing drug use. But try insisting loudly enough, say on Facebook or Twitter, that you want this and other government policies revised or discarded, but by the same government, not by a new one. I and similarly minded friends share the same stories of experiencing bullying of various degrees – from both sides, the pro-government and the anti-Duterte factions.

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Why am I bringing this up in a discussion of criticism? Because it is precisely the absence of critical thinking that leads to such a disastrous state of affairs, on a national and maybe even overseas scale at that. For people like us who’re familiar with the process, it seems entirely plausible that one can accept a leader but not certain of her or his policies. Yet this fairly simple turn of logic will be seen by many Filipinos, even those outside the country, as implausible and even nearly blasphemous. Philippine cultural training, as implemented by its educational institutions, is still reliant on the top-down dissemination of knowledge and the propagation of assumptions that are meant to be beyond questioning, or what we now call deconstruction.

So when you engage in the practice of criticism, you actually benefit yourself and your readers, if your goal is to keep growing as a practitioner. But you also have the potential of applying your skills to a wider cross-section of the body politic, evaluating issues of varying complexities, according to how the solutions can best benefit the widest and most needful sectors of society. Just close your eyes and imagine you’re watching a multidirectorial melodramatic saga by Lino Brocka, with multi-stranded plotlines from Ishmael Bernal, focused on the dispossessed as Brillante Mendoza does, and with an endless running time courtesy of Lav Diaz; that would be a great and scary and funny and tragic movie, and that would also be Philippine politics, or maybe even American politics, who knows.

We’re all aware that discussions of politics are always in danger of intensifying without ever being resolved, so let me pretend to be subtle and diplomatic, and switch gears without warning, hoping that no one notices. Regarding our topic, Philippine film criticism, the first thing that I think any entry-level person should be aware of appears to be something that many practitioners lack. They can’t be blamed for it because the issue remains shrouded in the mist of colonial history. But it would be indispensable if we were to devise a means of distinguishing the practice from its global counterparts. What I refer to here is the fact that film, in particular, was originally introduced during the late Spanish era, in the 1890s, by investors who wanted to turn a profit, as they still do today. But when the Spaniards were shortly thereafter replaced by the Americans, the fast-evolving media of photography, and later film, were deliberately deployed by colonial officials, led by Interior Secretary Dean Worcester, to rationalize the colonization project.

Worcester and the periodicals that reviewed his output, including the New York Times, participated in this acknowledgment of the righteousness of the US occupation of the Philippines[2]. This is of special historical import, because when you read up on state cultural policy for cinema, this detail is overlooked in favor of a later development, when Vladimir Lenin declared that film would be the means for the Soviet Union to propagandize for international socialism. Thus when we speak of critical commentary on turn-of-the-century Philippine-produced photographic and cinematographic products, we are really talking about a perspective with two characteristics that were typical for that situation: first, it assumes the supremacy of visual technology; and second, it considers the interest of the Philippine subjects, who provide the raw material for these products, as incidental at best and insignificant at worst.

I wish to emphasize that this situation, which I’d call sordid if you’ll allow me to be subjective, applied to both the production of film and the output of criticism. And from over a hundred years ago, I would like to abruptly bring us all to the present, where film had just ended its reign as the country’s primary means of entertainment, its “national pastime,” to use the title I provided for my first book. It was so successful that at one point, during the 1980s, Filipinos appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most avid movie-goers in the world[3]. As an industry, the medium was always one of the first to bounce back during the several periods of wartime and peacetime upheavals, even after the IMF-World Bank Asian crisis of the late ’90s demolished most of the country’s medium- and small-scale industries. In fact Philippine cinema’s latest recovery is a testament to its people’s ability to make do with whatever resources are still accessible to native practitioners. Just as the Soviet filmmakers responding to Lenin’s call turned a shortage of film stock into the rapidly intercut juxtapositions that we identify with Soviet montage, so did Filipino filmmakers confront the prohibitive cost of celluloid production by simply junking it and making do with far more affordable video technology, initially setting up their own projectors in film theaters just to be able to screen their work.

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All this will sound like over-valorizing a trend that has somehow become standard by now, but at that time, I had just returned to the home country after completing my graduate studies in the US, and I can attest to the anxiety and humiliation felt by the digital-filmmaking pioneers, who thought that what they were making was not “authentically” film because it was not in celluloid. The celluloid-to-digital transition was completed in the Philippines before it was undertaken everywhere else, and succeeded so overwhelmingly that the industry was able to develop an industry-within-an-industry, a burgeoning independent-cinema scene, complete with its own series of competing festivals, auteurs and canons, and critical appreciators. The connection with the early years of US colonization becomes apparent when we look at an orientation that bothered a few mature critics and some young ones as well. Films were being finished for the explicit purpose of making a splash in overseas festivals, with a preference for those in Europe, and any record of rejection by the Filipino audience could be spun around into the claim that the artist, like the messianic biblical prophet, was without honor in her or his own country.

In that way, and at that moment, we managed to achieve American self-colonization, producing cultural artifacts that made use of the local audience’s real lives as raw material, but which were never intended for their own consumption and appreciation. The complicity of contemporary film commenters was troubling enough so that the then-chair of the original critics circle went on record to denounce them, preferring to call them film bloggers rather than critics, and demonized as well their propensity for scrounging for perks, in the form of free trips to foreign film competitions, as members of the jury (Tolentino 184)[4]. I use the past tense in describing this state of affairs, because the situation has peaked, and with that peak, its possible closure has become discernible. This peak actually occurred in recent months, when Filipino entries in the so-called Big Three European film festivals won major prizes, including best film at one point. The Woman Who Left, the film by Lav Diaz that won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion prize, starred the former President and CEO of the country’s biggest film and TV conglomerate[5]. Diaz inscribed his own career circle, since his early films were produced by what was then the Philippines’s most successful studio, Regal Films, before he sought fuller autonomy via the combination of independent financing and digital production that I mentioned earlier.

For me, the lesson here is an affirmation of what I had always believed in: that among all possible types of professionals, artists (including writers) have the capacity to change for the better, with the rest of society and the world waiting to testify, to act as witnesses. Critics, when they’re lucky, should be in the position to herald the good news, or to demand for it when necessary. As you can sense, I’ve made another supposedly subtle segue into the ethics of film criticism, and wasted the previous minutes on a necessary but too-lengthy introduction. Don’t do that unless you’ve been granted exclusive control over a microphone and a guarantee that no questions will be asked right afterward. But honestly, if anyone were to ask me right now what she or he needs to prepare to get into film criticism, I would first respond by answering: what for? Is there an urgent need for it, a life-and-death situation that has the potential to turn tragic if another option, another desire intervenes and replaces this first one?

Like all defensive responses, this one reflects on me, the questioner, rather than the one being questioned. I was probably lucky in starting out in criticism before formal film training became a possibility in the Philippines, and figured out all the other necessities along the way. I was naïve enough, and the field was new enough, so that I could take stock of existing samples and say, “I could certainly write better than many of these people.” I was determined to become conversant with film theory and history, on my own if necessary, and at the very least become known as a film critic who could outwrite anyone else within the limited and insular circle of local practitioners. When I was invited to join the formal critics’ organization while barely out of college, that indicated for me that I’d been taking the right steps. Yet almost as soon as I’d signed the proverbial membership card, I’d taken my first misstep: an inordinately harsh denunciation of a commercial exercise by Lino Brocka. Manila being the tiny capital city that believes itself to be larger than what it is, I inevitably bumped into Brocka within the same week the review came out, and made the acquaintance as well of several other practitioners, a couple of whom also happened to be concurrent members of the critics’ circle.

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I never really had a sudden falling-out with the group, only a gradual and incremental accumulation of differences, based primarily on the circle’s insistence on annual award-giving as its nearly exclusive means of self-validation[6]. For me, that would be like winning every possible essay-writing prize and saying that I deserve this elevated recognition right now, because of the external evidence of my literary ability. But rather than recount the many disappointments I had with the Filipino Film Critics Circle, I’d prefer to share with you the positive lessons I picked up along the way. First, the members’ practice of rewatching films in contention as many times as necessary until they’re able to arrive at a consensus, was something I’d already been doing, but it reaffirmed my personal realization that films deserved as much close and precise observation as we bestow unquestioningly on fine arts and literary products. I am currently in the process of completing a canon project, over half a decade in the making, and the same procedure of making sure that the canon team’s choices can withstand more than one screening has led to some unanticipated discoveries and reversals.

Second, the ability of colleagues who can productively engage in metacritical discussions, where we critique one another’s criticism, is a rarity even among fellow critics, but an invaluable treasure when it comes along. During the period of my membership, the most important sessions I had were not the ones where the group determined the fate and reputation of the community of artists it claimed to support, by selecting individual award winners and causing resentment and disappointment among the rest. Instead, it was the moments when Professor Bien Lumbera, then and now its most senior member, would discuss with me the process of writing critical commentary, and explain the nuances of tone, diction, insight, structure, and rhetoric. To be honest, I found more of this type of rapport after I left the group, when I made the acquaintance of Mau Tumbocon here as well as a few other critics, and expanded my network to include classmates in graduate school and students at the film institute of the national university. I may as well also qualify that, among people capable of collegial interactions, differences can sometimes transmute into serious disputes, aggravated by the various side issues that tend to be raised by aggrieved parties in both camps. But since critical activity is as much reactive to subsequent social, aesthetic, ideological, and technological developments, even as it seeks to influence these phenomena in return, we find ourselves hailing the people we once thought we had given up for good, just as I had tended to grow apart from some groups with whom I once thought I could share long-term visions.

Third, and perhaps most unexpected though thoroughly commonsensical when you ponder it over, is the humbling discovery that critical thinking is not the exclusive province of critics. The greatest artists throughout history, in all corners of the world, had made that discovery for themselves, and their special gift to critics is the difficult-yet-productive exercise we get when we undertake a study of their body of work. I was already aware that Ishmael Bernal, for example, was conducting an intensive and radical reworking of the medium of film for Philippine subject matter and audiences, before I even learned that he was also once a film critic. This ties in with my insistence on literary polish and innovation for critical practitioners. I cannot count how many times I had cringed when I read critics complaining about a film’s lack of elegance and creativity, in the kind of writing that would be the very exemplification of the disappointments that their authors wanted to point out.

The last matter I wish to raise about criticism is the one that causes a crucial but often unnoticed division among practitioners themselves. I first got an inkling of it after I published my second book, essentially a more specialized anthology of my reviews supplemented by a basic but extensive critical study and a few canon-forming attempts. I was worried that reviewers might complain about how obsolete the issues it was raising were, since my intention was to demonstrate that those critical exercises first needed to be done right before they could be abandoned in favor of more current approaches. Instead, the most extensive local-daily reaction dwelled on the fact that some of the words I used went beyond journalistic-level samples. When I speculated what the reviewer must have thought about film writing, I concluded that he actually had a laudatory assumption: that discussions on film don’t have to be complicated, because film is accessible to a lot of people to begin with.

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Yet I could not bring myself to accept this premise. To me, the fact that people respond enthusiastically to a phenomenon should never be seen as a weakness to pamper, but rather as an opportunity to elevate discourse. Of course we find extreme examples where the enthusiasm for theoretical engagement turns into a refusal to be comprehensible. Once more, the person who has trained in effective expression, where ideas that are drawn from credible and knowledgeable sources, can be re-worded for the sake of the lay reader, would have an edge here. The ideal for the critic would be the generation of relevant, complex, and progressive ideas in the simplest language that said ideas could embody without betraying or compromising their content. The tension in this formulation derives from a false opposition between the scholarly writer and the journalist, or what I once innocently echoed as the critic and the reviewer. To me, these distinctions matter less today; I wouldn’t agree with the late John Simon that reviewing is just bad criticism[7], but rather that everything, not just reviewing but even film reporting, can be criticism. The contemporary film critic would, or should, actually function as both: as someone who keeps abreast of new writings in cinema and media studies, who also seeks to popularize these ideas when they pertain to certain recent film releases or trends.

There are two points I could never over-emphasize in this regard. One is that the use of theory in writing reviews may or may not be foregrounded, but it should be capable of providing a framework for the critic’s take on the film or films being discussed. Another is that this framework is not the usual operationalizing of correctly understood concepts that we learn to do in school. Theory, as our fellow YCC founder Patrick D. Flores put it, is a matter that should be engaged, not applied (193)[8]. This means that while the critic may explain her harsh or dismissive take on a film by referring to the underlying principles of a theory, the critic should also ensure that she had managed to evaluate the theory in terms of its appositeness, relevance, explanatory potential, progressiveness, and other questions essential to what we may call theory appreciation. Too often, we come across readings of non-Western cultural samples where the critic has regurgitated recent theory and wound up displaying her grasp of sometimes new ideas at the expense of prejudging the native product.

I would like to end by saying that while I may have accumulated this collection of insights on what an effective film critic would be like, I would be lying to you if I denied that I sometimes fall short of one or more of the ideals that I recounted in the course of this lecture. I also look forward to learning a few more tricks along the way, if I can still have the good fortune of discovering them. The biggest misgiving I had with this recognition is that from hereon, there would be less room for me to commit mistakes, the source of some of my most-enduring lessons. But then I could also have a better platform by which I could tell the current and forthcoming generations of Filipino film critics to prepare as best as they could, and once they have taken stock of their preparation, to take a step or two further into what they think is unexplored, probably even questionable, territory. Be well-conditioned, but don’t forget to take risks. People will give you a once-over because you’re dealing with a medium that’s close to their hearts. Make sure you’re ready to give in return more than what they expect, not only because they might appreciate the effort, but because you owe yourself a useful lesson each time you send out your contribution to our now-growing stock of cultural discourse.

Thank you for paying attention. I wish you all the best experience before, during, and after watching movies.

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Notes

The author acknowledges the assistance provided by the Inha University Faculty Research Grant. Many thanks to Ha Ju-Yong, Lee Sang Hun, Park Shin-gu, Park Haeseok, Son Boemshik, Park Jinwoo, Yu Taeyun, Jek Josue David, Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., Alexei Masterov, Nora & Pete Luayon, Ohny Luayon, Ann-Marie Alma Luayon-Tecson, Lewis Tecson, Marita Jurado, and Carlo Jurado.

[1] Tony Bennett, Outside Literature (London: Routledge, 1990). Other texts consulted include The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983) by Edward Said; and The Function of Criticism: From the Spectator to Post-Structuralism (London: Verso, 1984), Marxism and Literary Criticism (London: Routledge, 1976), The Significance of Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), and Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London: Verso, 1981) – all by Terry Eagleton.

[2] See Mark Rice, Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014), 118-55. Also see “Calls Wild Men our Wards,” New York Times (December 31, 1913): 7, qtd. in Rice.

[3] Guinness Book of World Records (Samford, Conn.: Guinness Media, 1983).

[4] Rolando B. Tolentino, “Hinahanap, Kaya Nawawala” [Searched For, Therefore Missing], 182-88; in Patrick F. Campos (ed.), “A Round Table Discussion on Poetics and Practice of Film Criticism” (initial post), Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society 13.1 (2016): 149-217.

[5] Lav Diaz (dir. & scr.), Ang Babaeng Humayo [The Woman Who Left], perf. Charo Santos-Concio, John Lloyd Cruz, Michael de Mesa, Nonie Buencamino, Shamaine Buencamino, Mae Paner (prod. Sine Olivia Pilipinas & Cinema One Originals, 2016).

[6] See Joel David, “My Big Fat Critic Status,” Amauteurish! Extras (1985), posted online.

[7] John Simon, “A Critical Credo,” Private Screenings (New York: Macmillan, 1967): 1-16, excerpted online.

[8] Patrick F. Campos (ed.), “A Round Table Discussion on Poetics and Practice of Film Criticism” (initial post), Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society 13.1 (2016): 149-217.

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Searched For, But Not Missing

Ang Nawawala [What Isn’t There]
Directed by Marie Jamora
Written by Marie Jamora and Ramon de Veyra

After over a decade of existence, the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival has garnered its share of controversies, many of them centered on differences between officials and practitioners, often proving beneficial to both sides because of the publicity that inevitably attends such spectacles. Lost in the shuffle would be an increasing number of titles that deserve as much (if not more) attention, but that get shunted aside because of jurors’ preferences and the festival audience’s tendency to take their cue from media mileage. Among the titles I had the good fortune to stumble across, I remember Arah Jell Badayos and Margaret Guzman’s Mudraks [Mom] (2006) and Vic Acedillo’s Ang Nerseri [The Nursery] (2009), well-observed modest films whose central performances by established actresses (Rio Locsin and Jaclyn Jose respectively) apparently could not lift them out of the cycle that regularly smothers the entries that do not generate their own hype. Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil’s Boses [Voices] (2008) was a special case – an entry locked out by the jury but that proved so popular among audiences that it became, via a series of still-continuing special screenings, the festival’s highest income-generating production.

Marie Jamora’s Ang Nawawala (2012) possesses its own special package of scandal. It was denounced during the festival period by organized critics from academe (overlapping categories, in the case of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication and the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino or Filipino Film Critics Circle). Rolando Tolentino, the then-concurrent UPCMC dean and MPP chair, published a review in Filipino whose title described the film as “Burgis na Juvenalia” or bourgeois juvenalia (see screen capture) – a serendipitous error when we realize that juvenalia is not the same as juvenility (the reviewer’s likely intended word), but rather that it refers to the celebration of Juvenal, the Roman poet and satirist. Moreover, in a separate article (excerpted in my entry, Fallout to “A Lover’s Polemic”), Tolentino recounted the dissenters to his review by way of downgrading “film bloggers” as presumably inferior to critics like him and his fellow MPP members.

Burgis na Juvenalia

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While I take care to avoid responding to specific reviews, and regard Amauteurish! as primarily an archival blogsite, my recent viewing of Ang Nawawala convinced me to make an exception to my personal policy of watching a film at least twice, with at least one theatrical screening, in order to provide some (admittedly limited) critical intervention. Tolentino’s review mistakenly opens by stating that the film has “Walang self-reflexive [sic] gesture o take sa pagiging mayaman at pribilehiyado” [no reflexive gesture or take on being rich and privileged]. One would wonder what movie the reviewer managed to watch, when the entire narrative of Ang Nawawala, anchored on a main character who refuses to speak, turns on reflexivity at every opportunity. The reviewer worries that he might be mistaken for “minamaliit ang ganitong uri” [demeaning the members of the (wealthy) class] – quite disingenuous considering the circumstances of the MPP members’ pelf and power; and begins his conclusion by saying that “May ipinapanganak na problematiko ang ganitong pagtahak ng buhay ng maykaya, lalo pa bilang binary oposisyon sa pangkalahatang tema ng indie cinema, ang abang uri” [this treatment of the life of the wealthy gives rise to a problematic, especially in the form of a binary opposition with the general theme of indie cinema, which is the poor class].

Not surprisingly, Tolentino disapproves of the warm Cinemalaya audience reception to Jamora’s film, since he insists on his preconceived notion that “indie cinema” should preoccupy itself with the poor, and imposes this bias in literal terms – i.e., once a filmmaker turns her attention to the higher-than-poor classes, then she has wound up betraying his cherished Cinemalaya ideal. The implication of Tolentino’s premise is astounding in its vulgarity, not only because of its (vulgar-)Marxist origin, but also because it winds up dismissing the vast bulk of global art and literature, if we were to regard only material about “the poor class” (let alone the question of whether these were produced by the same class) as worthy of serious consideration.

Fortunately, Ang Nawawala stands a good chance of outliving such prescriptive guilt-by-association. It invokes the haunting of history by allowing a specter from the main character’s past, in the form of his long-dead twin brother, to engage him in debate regarding his recent actuations, including his decision to remain mute to everybody else; the living brother finally manages to score his own point by telling the ghost (or memory) that if he had been alive, he might have turned out gay – a rather weak riposte, considering how queerness has no longer become the devastating insult it had once been. By this means the brothers maintain a comic-melancholy balance between affection and regret, complicated by their awareness that their mother would have preferred the dead brother to survive.

The fact that the brothers are played by real-life twins adds resonance to the performances, with Jamora providing Dominic Roco (as the survivor) with a distinctive opportunity to play out his man-boy vibe, reminiscent of (and for me, preferable to) the persona that Aga Muhlach once purveyed. Their mother, who wreaks inadvertent cruelty in her performance of heartbreak, is essayed with a surprisingly fragile expertise by Dawn Zulueta; her resolution, one of several in the film, brings the proceedings to a head and rewards the curious viewer with an emotional satisfaction rare in familial depictions in indie cinema.

The aforementioned series of resolutions would be regarded in proper narrative classes as a weakness, but then each succeeding one manages to build up on what had preceded it, and Jamora would not be the first potentially major filmmaker who didn’t know, or maybe didn’t care, how to effectively end a genuinely fruitful journey. In fact one of the biggest lessons that could be drawn from the work of possibly the best local director, Ishmael Bernal, lies precisely in this direction: that once you have taken your audience on a trip that they never had before, you may be excused for worrying less about how the trip should end. (When I accidentally found out that Jamora had been mentored by Marilou Diaz-Abaya, a lot of her aesthetic choices suddenly invoked an unbearable nostalgia, as well as a solid logic: Diaz-Abaya herself had been mentored by Bernal.)

Ang Nawawala should have been recognized as the best debut film by a Pinay filmmaker (with the best pop-music soundtrack of all time as bonus), possibly exceeding even Laurice Guillen’s Kasal? [Wedding?] (1980), and it doesn’t detract from its achievement when we acknowledge that Hannah Espia’s even more impressive Transit arrived the year after, in 2013, along with Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita [Anita’s Last Cha-Cha]. With the only successful contemporary film studio, Star Cinema, already dominated by women directors, we may just be witnessing the indie scene starting to mimic one of the mainstream trends worth emulating.

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