Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Persistence of Vision

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

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

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

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

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Inklings #3

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

Be prepared to revise constantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Submit or upload your text, then attempt further revisions.

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

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

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

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

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Own your errors.

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

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

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

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

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Careful with claims you make.

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

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

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

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

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

What about my actual motives?

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

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Inklings #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Watch and read the necessary texts more than once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You call these writing tips?

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

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Inklings #1

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

There is no such thing as too much preparation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Look inward at your personal motive(s).

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

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

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

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

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

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Insist on the use of basic study tools.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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But where are the shortcuts?

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

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Turning Point

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

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

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

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Forebearance

Film is an illusion. The audience just sees a lot of shadows on the screen. The emotion is in the audience. The trick is giving them something that unleashes that and suddenly they endow the images with their emotion. My theory is, when people say a movie is beautiful, I don’t think it can be unless there is beauty in the audience.

Francis Ford Coppola[1]

Essential disclosure first: I’ve never enjoyed teaching film criticism the same way I relish teaching theories of film (some more than others, understandably). My reluctance in teaching writing that requires the development of personal style is precisely because of what the term denotes: writing style is something that one approaches the same way that one deals with knowledge – incrementally, instructed by the best available models, ideally with sufficiently useful feedback and room for failure, shaped primarily by one’s needs and preferences.

11011Fortunately film programs never want for instructors eager to teach students how to write on film.[2] From another perspective, this was the reason I could not take the Paulettes, named after their idol and role model Pauline Kael, as seriously as the original: there has been only one occasion in film history for a female critic with a jazz-inflected writing style who made no bones about the subjectivity of her responses and took to demolishing all opposing opinions mercilessly; no matter how delightfully she wrote and spoke, the act of replicating her quirks and mannerisms in another time and place no longer seemed essential. When I noticed Filipino film students writing the same way that their teachers did, I felt sorrier for their being unable to realize what was delimiting and sometimes flawed about their instructors’ prescriptions.

11011On the other hand, once I had completed the apprenticeship I set out for myself by performing as resident film critic of a weekly newsmagazine in the late 1980s to early 1990s, I became increasingly focused on scholarly writing. As I just finished pointing out, I managed to figure out that, like any other literary genre, film commentary set out an entire clutch of rules to follow, but the basic requisites for competent film writing remained unchanged. Those who have been following my output even during the past few years will also realize that I’ve allowed myself the pleasure of engaging in scandal discourse, an activity I couldn’t get enough of, to be honest about it. Unfortunately the incidence of sensational showbiz developments that could withstand allegorizing as an embodiment of the national condition has been rarer than color celluloid prints from the studio-system era.


[1] From“Life Is a Great Screenwriter,” an interview feature by James McMahon.

[2] Another matter I have tackled elsewhere but can’t pursue here: writing on film, to me, involves the widest possible spectrum of activity, including scriptwriting and celebrity-gossip reporting; generally a bad writer in one area will wind up writing badly elsewhere. One may elect to do careless film commentary with the resolve to rein in one’s gifts until a “real” industry break comes along or until a “worthy” literary undertaking presents itself, but this kind of cynicism merely masks a poverty of spirit that will always become evident at crucial moments to knowledgeable observers.

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary

Original Digital Edition (2021)
Cover design by Paolo Miguel G. Tiausas
“Bomba” © 2019 by Mina Saha
[Click on pic to enlarge]

[Entire version available at Pelikulove]
© 2021 by Amauteurish Publishing
All Rights Reserved

Introduction: Forebearance

Turning Point

Inklings 1
There is no such thing as too much preparation
Start with the long view: history, theory, long-form study
Look inward at your personal motive(s)
Insist on the use of basic study tools
11011Break: But where are the shortcuts?

Inklings 2
Review or critique, or is there a difference? (Part 1)
Review or critique, or is there a difference? (Part 2)
Watch and read the necessary texts more than once
Pay attention to your stylistic approach, to determine its adequacy
11011Break: You call these writing tips?

Inklings 3
Be prepared to revise constantly
Submit or upload your text, then attempt further revisions
Own your errors
Careful with the claims you make
11011Break: What about my actual motives?

Persistence of Vision

Mini-Appendices [including Works Cited section]
11011• A: Self-Study
11011• B: Deconstruction

Works Cited

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary’s entire text was written during the Covid-19 pandemic that left me (and several other citizens) stranded in foreign locales. The Twosome Place coffeehouse branch of Inha University in Incheon, Korea, became my virtual workplace during the several months it was allowed to operate, under the first-rate management of Lee Sanghun, with my occasional craving for Turkish coffee adequately covered by Sinan Çakiltepe’s Itaewon diner. Affairs in the home country were worked out by my brother Aris David, colleague Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, and scholars Juan Miguel Manansala and John Cris Velasquez. Upon deactivating from social media and discovering I preferred to remain virtually stranded as well, my connections to the digital world were sustained by a small circle of contacts, primarily Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr. and Jerrick Josue David (not a relation). An accumulation of self-doubt was relieved by welcome news from Louie Jon A. Sánchez.

11011As always I managed to count on my colleague, Ha Ju-Yong, to make sure I could accomplish official work requirements that entail reporting or coordinating in my host country’s language (which I still to struggle to learn, embarrassing as that sounds), with Kwon Sungjin and Yoo Hee-chan taking care of the more casual end. The work of scholars from all over such as Patricio N. Abinales, Lulu Torres-Reyes, Caroline S. Hau, and Paul Grant continues to inspire me to be productive, and I share with overseas Filipinos everywhere the fond hope that in a future that ought to arrive soon, we can finally thank everyone who helped us in person, rather than in print. The individual with the most impact on my development as a writer was my high-school English teacher, Teret de Villa, now a professorial lecturer at the national university’s Open University; I dedicated my first book to her and my other HS English teachers, but her influence abides throughout all my publications. In the same spirit of acknowledging formative influences, this book is dedicated to the first circle of friends I made in Korea: 박신구, 박해석, 손범식, 유태윤.

Disclaimer: The manuscript occasionally makes use of literary devices, including satire, hyperbole, and absurd humor, and thereby assumes basic competence in comprehension. The author will not be responsible for any person who observes a literal application of these passages in real life.

National Library of the Philippines CIP Data

David, Joel.
11011Writing Pinas film commentary / Joel David. — Original Digital Edition. — Quezon City : Amauteurish Publishing, [2020], © 2021.
1101152+vi pages ; 30 cm

11011ISBN 978-621-96191-7-2

110111. Film criticism — Philippines — Handbooks, manuals, etc. 2. Film criticism — Philippines. 3. Philippine essays (English). I. Title.


US Copyright Office Certificate of Registration:
TXu 2-255-122

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Acceptance message for the 2021 Gawad Balagtas for Film Criticism

The Covid-19 global pandemic necessitated an online program for the recognition ceremony of the annual awards of the Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas (Writers Union of the Philippines). With three minutes set as the limit for the recorded acceptance message, I read out the text below.[1].

An anachronistic pabebe wave to everyone.[2] I will admit that my response to the news of winning the Gawad Balagtas was immensely moving, partly because it reminded me that people at home were keeping tabs on me, and partly because these people represented an organization for whom criticism used to be distinct from (and less essential than) literature. The big secret I’ve kept to myself was that I never regarded criticism as any different from other forms of literature. I could sense throughout my career that some artists and authors appreciated the efforts I invested in my output, just as I also admired them when they were able to critique their own work and plow back their lessons and insights in their future products.

11011The reason why the UMPIL recognition is meaningful for a still-active critic like me is that the field where I function has been making occasionally valiant efforts at moving forward, to keep up with advances in other areas of criticism as well as in art and literature. But the distractions of more lucrative options in public relations as well as the dangerous assumption that film criticism should never challenge its readers’ intelligence all conspire against introducing new ideas and approaches.

11011This is why whenever I step back to assess how far I’ve been able to arrive, my journey was extensive only in terms of time and space. As public intellectual, I always feel like I’ve barely moved from where I started. I am hopeful that UMPIL will allow me the option of meandering down new pathways, playing with new concepts, championing practitioners who I feel have been overlooked, stumbling around once in a while, and maybe looking like I’m having too much fun – because I’ve learned that that’s the best way that difficult innovations can be announced and implemented.

11011I always delight in pointing out how I keep attacking canon-formation activities but ironically have to set up canons the right way in the first place. And at this stage in my life, I find myself being canonized as well, sometimes by institutions whose premises and motives I find necessary to contend with. This of course is always the risk we face when we announce our approbation of individuals who are still capable of, and intent on, changing.

11011For all the timeliness of the Gawad Balagtas, the careful deliberation that I’m sure must have gone in deciding to add me to the roster, and the symbolic consequence of being cited by the most credible and accomplished community of Pinas citizens, considerately extending their reach overseas, in defiance of a still-ongoing historic health disaster: my sincerest gratitude, lubos na pasasalamat sa inyo, 여러분 정말 더럽.[3]


Thanks to the people who provided advice on what I should (and shouldn’t) be saying: 박신구, 박해석, and 손범식, as well as to 권성진 for helping me pick out an appropriate final greeting. Special shoutout to UMPIL Board Member Louie Jon A. Sánchez, who made sure I had enough time to prepare for the occasion.

[1] The text of the citation was in Filipino and appears in the preceding illustration. It may be translated as follows:

For his vigilant advocacy of his field of practice, his faithful guidance in its nationalist and democratic aspirations, and his interventions in upholding film as a vital component of the everyday life of Filipinos and as a crucial factor in the unfolding of the history of the Philippines.

11011He is not only foremost in his field, but also the primary developer of [Philippine] film criticism, which has become a flourishing and indispensable literary form because of his tireless contributions.

[2] “Pabebe” is a Taglish term that may be approximated as “trying to be baby-like.” It was first used for the popular phenomenon on Philippine TV that enjoyed its own coinage, AlDub. The baby-ism specifically referred to a voiceless character appropriating the beauty-queen wave, which in turn was an imitation of the Queen of England’s distinctive hand wave.

[3] The standard utterance, “yeoreobun jeongmal dureob,” is a comic insult that translates to “you’re all really dirty.” The L and R sounds are represented by the same letter (ㄹ) in the Korean featural system, so with the adjustment of a consonant in the last word (to “duleob”), the statement aurally registers as “you’re really all the [ones I] love” in Konglish. Understandably, the wordplay will be recognizable mostly to younger generations of Koreans.

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List of Illustrational Problematics for Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic

Illustrational Problematics is a self-descriptive category spun off from the list of textual problematics. I designated it to explain issues with visual content. These affect pages 38, 45-46, 50, 82, and 127. For discussions of textual problematics, click here. To return to the corrigenda page, click here. The problematics are listed according to the order they appear in the book; for a topical list of issues linked to the discussions:

Bernal, Elena (Ishmael’s mother)
Bongbong at Kris (1987), play by Boy Noriega
Estregan, George, pic of Eric (1969)
Iginuhit ng Tadhana (1965), “Bongbong” Marcos in
Manila Film Center’s Malakas at Maganda mural
11011Si Malakas, si Maganda, at si Mahinhin (1980)
Paloma, Pepsi rape case
Presidential children as film performers
When It Is a Gray November in Your Soul Coffee Shop

Page 38, Figure 4:

Several elements in this pair of pictures are capable of generating discussions in themselves, but would detract significantly from the concerns of the book text. To bring up a novel example: one figure is common to both – Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., only son of the Marcos couple and latter-day frustrated vice presidential aspirant. This detail would alter most people’s impression that the first presidential offspring to perform in movies was Corazon Aquino’s daughter Kris. (At one point, Lino Brocka was considering casting Imee Marcos in the title role of his Cannes breakout entry Insiang, but fortunately managed in time to cast aside that phantasmagoria; see pp. 125-26 of Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon’s “The Brocka Battles,” in Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times, ed. Mario A. Hernando, Manila: Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas, 1993, pp. 118-54.) During the euphoric period that followed the 1986 “people-power” revolt that deposed the Marcoses and installed Cory Aquino, playwright Bienvenido M. Noriega Jr. (formerly with Imee Marcos’s Experimental Cinema of the Philippines) wrote a popular stage comedy premised on a speculative Romeo & Juliet-inspired romance titled Bongbong at Kris (1987).

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Pages 45-46, Figure 7:

I would have preferred to use the evocative pic below (click to enlarge) in place of the solo portrait of Elena Bernal. Unfortunately its source, the phenomenal Pro Bernal Anti Bio volume (Manila: ABS-CBN Publishing, 2017) – drafted as an autobiography of Ishmael Bernal, passed on to his confidant Jorge Arago, and completed by Angela Stuart-Santiago in honor of her late friends – came out about the same time as Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic. It would also have corrected the commonly misspelled and uncompleted name of the café run by Bernal, with “When It Is a Gray November in Your Soul Coffee Shop” rather than “When It’s a Grey November in Your Soul.”

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Page 50, Figure 9:

The pic in question came from a framed entry in Cinema Paraiso (Film Paradise), an exhibit of Filipino movie memorabilia with film screenings and lectures, held February to April 2003 at the National Commission for Culture and Arts gallery in Intramuros, Manila. According to historian and archivist Teddy Co, one of the organizers, “It’s actually from my collection of bomba magazines, ca. 1969-70. I cannot find the issue anymore so I cannot name the magazine and what month it was in. The other exhibit curators were Josephine Atienza and Cesar Hernando…. The pic was in a section called A History of Kissing in Filipino Movies, starting from the first smooch between Dimples Cooper and Luis Tuazon to a digitally rendered kiss from Lastikman (dir. Tony Y. Reyes, 2003)” (Facebook Messenger exchange, June 5, 2020). The explanation may be too long for a caption and should probably be written as a footnote.

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Page 82, Figure 15:

I could have replaced either one of two exterior shots of the Manila Film Center with the mural in the lobby, painted by Victor Cabisada Jr. and Peter Alcántara, then-impossible to access after a fire damaged the building. In September 2020, an art historian, John Paul “Lakan” Olivares, posted the pic below (click to enlarge), apparently taken when the object was still new, on his blog Lakbay ng Lakan, and granted me permission to use the illustration. It depicts the native myth of the first cis couple, Malakas (strong) and Maganda (beautiful), the latter resembling Imelda Marcos; both were supposedly locked together in a node of bamboo, pecked open by a curious bird. Although many other Malakas at Maganda murals with the same intent of identifying the Marcoses as first Filipinos can still be found in various government buildings, the Manila Film Center version was far and away the best-rendered of the lot.

11011Incidental observation, which I admit being unprepared to fully comment on: the couple were notoriously sensitive to criticism about themselves, but the biggest queer-themed hit up to that point, Danny L. Zialcita’s Si Malakas, si Maganda, at si Mahinhin [The Strong, the Pretty, and the Timid] (Trigon Cinema Arts, 1980), came out around this time. The surest speculation I can make is that the movie was released just as the controversy over Manila by Night was making headlines all over the world. Imelda was certainly not going to risk her culture-czarina status over what appeared to be a potboiler that would never attract the same amount of attention as the production she deemed was a smear on her dream of setting up what she termed the City of Man.

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Page 127, Figure 26:

Re the caption: upon the prompting of director-writer and actor Bibeth Orteza, a close associate of the accused comedians (one of whom had died), I reread available material on the controversy and was surprised to find that the case for reasonable doubt was strong. Pepsi Paloma advanced her accusation of rape in the media on the basis of a photograph where she was apparently being kissed against her will. Splashed on the front pages of tabloids and now inexplicably unavailable, the picture showed Joey de Leon kissing an unwilling Paloma, with the other comedians looking on with amusement. The worst that the picture denotes would be molestation, rather than rape.

11011The photographer was Guada Guarin, an actress who was also a ward of talent manager Rey de la Cruz; she has since refused to speak on the matter, as do the surviving accused. The rape story attracted renewed attention from an extended article and its follow-ups that were subsequently withdrawn by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, after the current Philippine Senate President, who was part of the comedy team but not present during the incident, successfully contested the timeline of events claimed in the articles.

11011I had to conclude that the rape accusation may have been one of the publicity gimmicks de la Cruz (whom I’d interviewed more than once) was known for. The softdrink beauties and the comedy trio used to have their own regular projects with Regal Films (also Manila by Night’s production outfit). When the production company severed its ties with de la Cruz and his talents as a result of the controversy, that indicated to me that the accused had enough of a strong case to demand that Regal either take their side or risk a lawsuit.

11011The circumstances behind the incident, where the alleged rapists invited the actresses to visit a room in a five-star hotel, had no indication of coercion or the use of an incapacitating agent; each side claimed that the other was enthusiastic about extending invitations to visit the room. The last few weeks before Paloma announced she was dropping her case, only de la Cruz continued to denounce the comedians. The Senate President, unfortunately, is a right-wing pro-Church bigot with the expected sexist and homophobic trains of thought; the condition gives rise to less-informed liberals readily believing that he shares the same type of malevolence with his associates – which, according to people within showbiz circles, is far from true.

11011As a direct result of the suppression of the Inquirer articles, several misimpressions about the incident have proliferated. In one instance, Eraserheads frontperson Ely Buendia found it necessary to debunk the long-standing rumor that the song “Spoliarium” (titled after the famed 1884 painting of Juan Luna) was about the rape of Pepsi Paloma. One other verifiably erroneous claim making the rounds of internet posts concerns the ungrammatical suicide note supposedly left by Paloma, stating “This is a crazy planets.” This was in fact the message left by a near-contemporaneous suicide, Stella Strada, who like Paloma also became famous as a sex-film ingenue.

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List of Textual Problematics for Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic

Textual Problematics is the term I use to refer to issues that occasionally are unresolved, or that otherwise would be too cumbersome to attend to, within the physical and/or editorial limits of the publication. Most of these issues already inhered in the material during the process of its creation, although in one instance, the problem arose some time after publication. They range from the aforementioned complication in attribution, to a queer controversy involving a different film, to the usual quirks in historical interpretation. These affect pages 11-12, 36-38, 53-59, 56, 57n10, 61, 64, 69, 78-79, 88, 111, 128, and 148-49. For discussions of illustrational problematics, click here. To return to the corrigenda page, click here. The problematics are listed according to the order they appear in the book; for a topical list of issues linked to the discussions:

Availability of First Golden Age titles
Bernal, Ishmael
11011Cooperation with the Metro Manila Commission
11011Traumatized in his first film project
Book writing process, including close reading
Brocka, Lino’s last-minute rejection of commerce-vs.-artistry binary
Censorship politics during the Marcos presidency
Manila by Night (1980)
11011As a comedy film
11011Erroneous title (Manila after Dark)
11011Production design problem
Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975), missing sequences of
11011Internal censorial troubles
11011Similarity with Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Pito ang Asawa Ko, Huwag Tularan (1974)
11011Falling out with film producer
11011Homage to a François Truffaut film
Plot & structure, rather than characters
Smorgasbord movies
11011Iginuhit ng Tadhana (1965), elements in
11011Partial list of prototypes

Pages 11-12:

I prepared for the project by rereading some of my favorite volumes in the British Film Institute Film Classics series (renamed BFI Film and TV Classics) as well as some of the recent Queer Film Classics texts. As far as I could tell, their approaches reflected their respective authors’ scholarly concerns. What they all had in common though was close readings of the specific films after which each volume was titled. In anticipation of this exercise, I drafted a detailed account of Manila by Night’s plotline, running for several pages. To my relief, the editors described it as too long and asked for a story summary instead. (I posted on Ámauteurish! the said extensive storyline.)

11011In writing out the book, I had to provide expositions of the Philippines and its cinema in the first of the standard three chapters, so I thought I could do the close reading in the second chapter. But then I wound up explicating Philippine queer cinema and the auteur I was covering, and in the final chapter I had to explain how the multicharacter movie functioned as a politically responsive genre product. I provided some relevant technical observations and decided to see where the editors might think I could insert the missing close reading of the entire film. To be honest, though, I thought that any scene-by-scene analysis would disrupt the textual flow, if not stanch it altogether. So once more I was relieved when their list of revisions did not include the specification I dreaded.

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Pages 36-38:

In a manner of speaking, the first Ferdinand Marcos biopic that Sampaguita Pictures produced had the trappings of a smorgasbord production (see page 88) – multi-episodic and multi-directed – except where it mattered: it featured a singular (pseudo-)heroic character. I am only certain of the availability of few of the proto-smorgasbord Sampaguita films in this listing, Tony Cayado’s Mga Ligaw na Bulaklak and Kaming mga Talyada, Armando Garces’s Sino ang Maysala?, as well as the final one referenced here, Iginuhit ng Tadhana: The Ferdinand E. Marcos Story. All the other ones are apparently lost. Will update if any of the others surfaces. [Update: An apparent smorgasbord-movie predecessor, produced by LVN Pictures and more aligned in fact with the late-1950s bad-boy Lo’ Waist Gang trend initiated by Larry Santiago of Premiere Productions, has surfaced: Barkada [Gang], a 1958 release directed by Lou Salvador Sr., may be accessed at Mike de Leon’s Citizen Jake Vimeo page.]

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Pages 53-59:

I ought to express with utmost care the dynamics behind censorship as a political process during the Marcos martial-law era. When the Philippines began to acquire a higher global profile and a then-upstart studio, Regal Films, made its bid for overseas presence via Manila by Night, only someone with the right combination of motives and connections could step up and make sure that the powers-that-be develop an animosity toward the film. Why against Ishmael Bernal but not against the Cannes Film Festival celebrants, Lino Brocka and Mike de Leon? The person in question, Marichu Vera-Perez Maceda, may have been connected as much with Brocka, or at least with the Philippine Educational Theater Association, as with the Marcoses. Brocka and de Leon worked for Maceda’s outfit. Bernal however had a celebrated falling-out over Huwag Tularan: Pito ang Asawa Ko, the film project he completed with Sampaguita Pictures, the studio run by her father, after the latter shot additional scenes without the director’s approval. This means that reports of her behavior in mediating between the conflicting sides in the censorship controversy must be subjected to intensive critical scrutiny.

11011I had the opportunity to observe, as an insider in the Marcos film agency, how Maceda opted for the program that directly handled the disbursement of funds to favored film projects. When a project she produced potentially conflicted with the output of Marilou Diaz-Abaya, an associate of Bernal, I heard her make an excessively dramatic claim to mediating between the creative team and the forces of censorship. Bernal carefully demonstrated deference for someone who was after all part of the inner circle of the First Lady, but condemned her in the strongest terms after she left, for once more finding ways to advance her political and financial standing at the expense of some of the most outstanding films of the time. The Philippine critical community continues to hold Maceda in high esteem, mainly because of her association with a noteworthy period in film history; for this reason the many significant accomplishments of her family’s studio (active during and beyond the First Golden Age) will have to be qualified with the underhanded intrigues she fomented during a period when opposing figures of power carried inordinate political, professional, and personal risks.

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Page 56, second (parenthesized) sentence:

Bernal’s familiarity with official government communication policy derived from his working relation with another functionary, similar in terms of access to power as the two-faced censoring agent in the preceding entry, but benevolent for a change. Marita Manuel, whose tracks since the end of the Marcos dispensation have become scarce, ran Metro Manila Commission, one of many agencies that accommodated people with radical backgrounds who needed to be “rehabilitated” after a spell in political detention. By this means Marcos was able to harness talent that would have otherwise remained dormant or that would have returned to underground activities. In 1980, apparently as a means of mollifying the government, she initiated a “documentary” project titled Manila, with Bernal directing and several of the Manila by Night talents appearing. Rediscovered in 2018, the 45-minute curiosity was more of a travelogue that aimed to persuade foreign viewers to tour the city. See Edwin P. Sallan, “Ishmael Bernal’s ‘Lost’ Manila Docu Evokes Nostalgia,” Daily Tribune (July 8, 2018).

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Page 57, footnote 10:

This may well be an unnecessary inclusion but I’ll just be placing it here for thoroughness’s sake. Manila by Night’s still-ongoing troubles begin with its title, which for some reason left-identified Pinas cultural officials refuse to use. City after Dark was the military censors’ designation, so any film screened with that title should be considerably shorter and replete with aural deletions of cusswords and references to the capital city. The claim I made however that another moniker, Manila after Dark, does not exist anywhere in Philippine cinema now has to be qualified, as of mid-2021, with the streaming release of Joel C. Lamangan’s Lockdown. It’s a meta-detail though, since it’s a fiction within a fiction, fascinating in itself and utterly attuned to the world envisioned by Manila by Night. A police-protected proprietor’s illicit vidjakol website – which provides erogenous solo-male or man-on-man displays for paying customers – is depicted as using the title in question, as screen-capped below. (The internet-specific coinage vidjakol, a pun on “video call,” is a portmanteau conflating “video” with the Tagalog slang word for masturbation, jakól, from the word “ejaculate.”)

Screen cap from Joel C. Lamangan’s 2021 film Lockdown.

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Page 61, end of first paragraph:

The out-of-court settlement between the author of the novel Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag and the production team of the film adaptation Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag may have involved a demand from the novelist to delete the improvised gay-hustler sequences. The current existing product, including the Blu-ray versions released by the British Film Institute and the Criterion Collection, contains the section from Julio Madiaga (Rafael Roco Jr.) wandering the Metropolitan Theater’s adjacent Mehan Garden, where he is befriended by Bobby (Jojo Abella), through Julio’s first night at Bobby’s apartment where he witnesses Bobby accommodating a client, to his initial attempt at gay-for-pay sex in the brothel where Bobby works.

11011We may be allowed to speculate here (based on scriptwriter Clodualdo del Mundo Jr.’s account) that Edgardo Reyes, the novelist, demanded that the entire rentboy detour be excised, while Lino Brocka held fast on retaining its opening section. The fact that a literary figure insisted on anti-queer censorship while a filmmaker immersed his material in homophobic imaging – both artists left-identified and left-supported – may be reflective of a period when perversion was regarded as immoral rather than potentially transgressive. Hence unlike Manila by Night, Maynila’s censorial difficulties were internal, waged by one progressive side against another, one outraged by the attempt “to sissify a manly novel about an ever-masculine city” (actual words used in an article written by a defender of the novelist’s claims) and the other insistent on presenting the underworld of male hustling in the worst possible light.

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Page 64, second paragraph, third sentence continuing to next page:

The Ideal Theater sequence recalls a similar episode in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), where Joe Buck (Jon Voight), broke and homeless after being fleeced by “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), agrees to be fellated by a student (Bob Balaban) in a movie theater. Afterward the latter reveals he has no money, angering Joe but ending with him letting the kid go. Midnight Cowboy turns out to have a broader connection with Maynila, in the sense that, symptomatic of their era, their moralism and homophobia were in effect rewarded by top industry prizes in their respective countries.

Similar incidents in both films culminate in a more striking parallel, where male strangers behave abusively. Both narrative heroes, their fists curled and shaking from rage, restrain themselves from further attacking the men – with Joe Buck clutching a broken bottle and Julio Madiaga managing to return a lady’s snatched handbag.

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Page 69, second sentence:

My primary source for this still-to-be-standardized insight has been Ricky Lee, who kept me updated during the making of Gumapang Ka sa Lusak [Dirty Affair] (1990), the project he was working on with Lino Brocka. Lee mentioned how delighted Brocka was that he could accept an outright commercial assignment yet imbue it with political relevance. This occurred at a felicitous intersection in Brocka’s career, where he had accumulated enough skills in a wide variety of popular genres during the precise historical moment when demonizing elected officials became extremely profitable box-office material. Lee devised a postmodern narrative that blended elements of the dance musical, suspense, melodrama, action, comedy, and soft-core porn to which Brocka once devoted specific projects in the past, within a brazenly reflexive premise. Brocka rose to the challenge while making sure to enjoy himself in the process, and was rewarded with not just what may have been his strongest box-office hit, but also a recognizable mass following: when he died in an accident the year after, the folk-hero dimension of his wake and funeral march would have been the envy of popular movie stars. A summary of Lee’s account appears on page 76 of Jose Dalisay Jr.’s “From Gingoog to Greenhills: Lino and His Writers” (in Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times, ed. Mario A. Hernando, Manila: Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas, 1993, pp. 74-85).

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Page 78-79, second sentence:

One consequence of David Bordwell’s formulation would be a study focused on plot and structure rather than on characters. A noteworthy example would be Dan Hassler-Forest’s well-regarded master’s thesis titled “Multiple Narrative Structures in Contemporary Cinema” (University of Amsterdam, April 1999).

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Page 88, Figure 18:

The “first” smorgasbord title is nominal; Sampaguita Pictures had been known for multi-performer presentations as early as the late 1950s, with Tony Cayado’s Mga Ligaw na Bulaklak [Wildflowers] (1957). A sampling of titles up to and including the year of Maraming Kulay ang Pag-ibig [Love Has Many Colors] (1966), featuring large casts in “epic” narratives: Armando Garces’s Sino ang Maysala? [Who Is to Blame?] (1957) Ding M. de Jesus’s Ginang Hukom [Madame Judge] (1960); Octavio Silos’s Mga Kwela sa Eskwela [The Cool Kids of School] (1963); Tony Santos’s Pinakamalaking Takas (ng 7 Atsay) [Biggest Escape (of 7 Domestic Helpers)] (1963); Mar S. Torres’s Bathing Beauties and Mga Bata ng Lagim [Kids of Horror] (1964); Tony Cayado’s Kaming mga Talyada [We Who Are Sexy] (1962), Mga Batang Iskwater [Slum Kids] and Pitong Desperada [Seven Women Bandits] (1964); Octavio Silos’s Mga Batang Bakasyonista [Vacationing Kids], Mga Batang Milyonaryo [Millionaire Kids], and Mga Batang Artista [Showbiz Kids] (1964); Conrado Conde’s Apat na Kagandahan [Four Daughters] (1965); Octavio Silos’s Mga Batang Turista [Tourist Kids] (1965); Jose de Villa’s Paano Kita Lilimutin [How Will I Forget You] (1966); and Luciano B. Carlos’s Jamboree ’66 (1966).

11011Closer to the multiply directed example of Maraming Kulay ang Pag-ibig would be Sweet Valentines, directed by Tony Cayado, Conrado Conde, Rosa Mia, Octavio Silos, Carlos Vander Tolosa, Jose de Villa, and Romy Villaflor (1963); and Umibig Ay Di Biro [Love Is No Joke], directed by Emmanuel H. Borlaza, Luciano Carlos, Conrado Conde, Rosa Mia, Octavio Silos, Carlos Vander Tolosa, and Romy Villaflor (1964). All were produced by Sampaguita Pictures and/or its subsidiary, VP Pictures; in the instance of Pinakamalaking Takas, Sampaguita linked up with a rival studio’s subsidiary, Dalisay Pictures. Pitong Desperada was by Ambassador Productions, but its talents and stars were all also identified with Sampaguita.

11011The other First Golden Age studios were of course more than willing to replicate the success of the Sampaguita projects. LVN Pictures produced the recently rediscovered Barkada [Gang] (dir. Lou Salvador Sr.) in 1958, which Premiere in turn repurposed into its successful Lo’-Waist Gang bad-boy films. This may have possibly convinced Sampaguita to find a way to profit from an innovation it initiated – hence the smorgasbord concept as well as the Stars ’66 batch of talents, two strategies that proved influential (because profitable) throughout the Second Golden Age and thereafter. Interestingly, two mid-1950s titles by Premiere Productions featured omnibus projects by different filmmakers: Apat na Kasaysayang Ginto [Four Golden Stories] (1956), with Gerardo de Leon, Cesar Gallardo, Cirio H. Santiago, & Teodorico C. Santos; and Bicol Express (1957), with Josefino Cenizal, Abraham Cruz, Gerardo de Leon, Efren Reyes, Eddie Romero, Cirio H. Santiago, & Teodorico C. Santos (an incredible seven segments!). Such chutzpah may have derived from the studio’s reputation for prestige, in terms of boasting of award-winning film artists. No surprise, however, in the subsequent observation that Filipino film releases may have occasionally lengthened, requiring ten-hour screenings in two instances so far, but none have attempted an equivalent number of filmmakers working in a singular commercial project.

11011Final unrelated though intriguing insight: the initial smorgasbord film practice of recruiting several directors, each of whom would direct an episode in an omnibus project, was observed in two competing entries from 1965 that were anything-but-multicharacter: the then-incumbent president’s campaign film Tagumpay ng Mahirap [Triumph of the Poor] (featuring directors associated with Premiere, specifically Lamberto V. Avellana, Gerardo de Leon, & Eddie Romero) as well as the pseudo-heroic Sampaguita production Iginuhit ng Tadhana [Drawn by Destiny]: The Ferdinand E. Marcos Story (dir. Conrado Conde, Jose de Villa, & Mar S. Torres), annoyingly available for what it’s worth. (Also FWIW, Sampaguita was where then-hopeful movie aspirant Imelda Romualdez screen-tested, before she was Marcosed away.) The smorgasbord and Stars ’66 trends were launched the year after FM won, when an interesting new era for Pinas cinema (and Pinas history) took off. As far as I could find, the multi-directed local film presentation has culminated so far with the 3.5-hour-long Dugo at Pag-ibig sa Kapirasong Lupa [Blood and Passion on a Parcel of Land], released June 12, 1975 (the third Independence Day after the declaration of martial law), with five segments handled by Ding M. de Jesus, Cesar Gallardo, Armando A. Herrera, Johnny Pangilinan, & Romy Suzara.

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Page 111, first paragraph:

Around the time I was drafting the book, Manila by Night production designer Peque Gallaga reminisced, on his own and on others’ Facebook posts, regarding his participation in the project. He expressed extreme frustration with the cinematographer’s failure to use the proper filters for the breakwater sequence. Ishmael Bernal also mentioned this as one of the scenes he wanted to trim for the print expected to be finalized for the film’s Berlinale participation – which Moritz de Hadeln overruled (see page 55).

11011Gallaga’s recollection of his problem went as follows: “I talked to Sergio Lobo who was the cameraman. I said, ‘For their LSD sequence what I want to do is to get those little cups for the candles and float them by fitting them in small Styropors. But is it possible if you can put Vaseline around your lens so that it will just be out-of-focus lights and it’s only the faces of Cherie [Gil] and William [Martinez] that are going to be seen, so that all of a sudden these lights come on?’ He said ‘Yeah just paint the Styropor orange so that the lights would still be warm.’ So we bought about 200 [candles on Styropor] and on two [small outrigger boats], we lit each and every one of them and swept them with bamboo so that as the scene goes on these things start floating in.

11011“When we saw the rushes, I said, ‘Bernie, that’s shit! He didn’t defocus it in any way!’ All of a sudden they were surrounded by stupid candles and Styropors. ‘It’s ridiculous. This is really bad. We have to reshoot it!’ He said ‘No, just remember this scene will keep you humble the rest of your life’” (“Brocka-Bernal Interviews, 2018-2019,” for the exhibit Brocka, Bernal, and the City, January 24 to April 29, 2019, at the De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde’s School of Design and Arts, excerpted from “Peque on Bernie: Full Interview,” posted on YouTube by Benilde Campus Art).

11011A further insight that necessarily entails provisional and speculative conclusions was provided by one of Bernal’s colleagues, who must remain anonymous for now: Bernal was bullied by the cinematographer on the set of his first film assignment, Ah, Ewan! Basta sa Maynila Pa Rin Ako! (I am indebted to the innovative and dedicated archivist Jojo Devera for this exclusive bit of information.) Apparently angered and/or traumatized enough to refuse directorial credit (too late for the celluloid print, but observed in all the film’s print announcements), Bernal’s maltreatment may account for his hesitation in trying out other directors of photography until years later, when younger filmmakers could assure him of the reliability of their own cinematographers. Once more, homophobia (on the part of the house staff of Virgo Productions) may have factored in their engagement with the then-newbie. (See footnote 15 on page 99.)

11011Regarding the cinematographer fondly addressed as Mang Serge, one must also keep in mind that, apart from the aforementioned bullying that Bernal experienced in his first film project, he also insisted on maintaining Lobo during the period when the latter had to prepare for retirement. Lobo had provided superior work in his earlier output for Bernal, but it became apparent around this time that the lure of better-paying co-production projects with foreign investors was proving too strong to ignore. They would continue collaborating on several major projects for a couple of years afterward, but Bernal finally yielded to his associates’ request to consider other directors of photography. Unfortunately, a prospective project with Conrado Baltazar, Lino Brocka’s signature cinematographer, fell through with Baltazar’s sudden demise. Most of his major projects after Manila by Night were helmed by Manolo Abaya, husband of the director he mentored, Marilou Diaz-Abaya; other DOPs in subsequent Bernal films read like a who’s who of the best younger talents in the field.

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Page 128, second sentence of second paragraph:

Not a correction, more of a reminder for myself. I heard of Huwag Tularan: Pito ang Asawa Ko years before I saw it, which meant I’d seen most of François Truffaut’s films by then. I vaguely remembered a connection between a Truffaut film and this specific Bernal title, so I concluded that it must have been L’Homme qui aimait les femmes, since their main characters resembled each other. (Pito ang Asawa Ko is privileged by the same queer twist that appeared in a near-contemporaneous Truffaut film, La nuit américaine, and I insist on following the popular practice of dropping Huwag Tularan since it was imposed by the censors and was not present in initial publicity announcements.) In writing the Queer Film Classic text I checked the usual sources, and was flabbergasted at how my memory had tricked me: The Man Who Loved Women (as it was known in English) came out three years after Pito ang Asawa Ko.

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Pages 148-49, paragraph in common:

I ought to have proposed considering Ishmael Bernal as a comic filmmaker, with Manila by Night as black comedy – similar to the way that a review of Robert Altman’s Nashville was anthologized in The National Society of Film Critics on Movie Comedy (ed. Stuart Byron, New York: Grossman, 1977). The perspective would have been unthinkable for people who approach the text with advanced knowledge of its censorship troubles. The notion of laughter as subversive force, however, would have considerably explained why its persecution by the Marcos administration exceeded that of the other city movie, Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag. This would also have enabled me to raise issues of masquerade and irony more logically.

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