Category Archives: Film Criticism

Meta-Kritika! (Ámauteurish turns 5!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tears Go By

Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha
Directed & written by Mes de Guzman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Signal Rock and a Hard Place

Directed by Chito Roño
Written by Rody Vera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roño’s directorial flourishes are more foregrounded in Signal Rock than they were in Badil, yet they remain unintrusive (as discreet as Intoy learns to be) – a sign of the filmmaker’s maturation. In the first few scenes with the title object alone, we already see expert overlappings of image and sound so that more than one event transpires in single scenes; the first time Intoy visits the place by himself, we hear the wind transformed into the sound of a woman weeping.[2] The movie is so full of these throwaway gems that the only advisable response I can provide for a first screening is to sit back and take in the pleasure of a conglomeration of talents who love what they do and know how to go about making it happen.

Note

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

[2] Interestingly, the similarly named Signal Hill, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, was named for its setting as the site of the first wireless transatlantic transmission, when Guglielmo Marconi awaited a signal from England on December 12, 1901. See Diana Lambdin Meyer, “Canada’s Vital Role in the Communications Revolution” (September 2, 2017).
[First published August 17, 2018, in the Philippine Entertainment Portal]

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Innocence Regained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

[2] These five were: Celso Ad. Castillo’s Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak [When the Crow Turns White and the Heron Black] (1978); Lino Brocka’s Jaguar (1979); Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal [You Were the Only One I Loved] (1992); Gil Portes’s Mga Munting Tinig [Small Voices] (2002); and Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Magnifico (2003).

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

[4] More than a year prior to the attack by Filipino revolutionaries on the US unit in Balangiga, a guerrilla group laid siege to the town of Catubig, in what is now Northern Samar; the US Army’s efforts to regain control of the island accounted for the harsh measures that built up to the so-called Balangiga massacre (see endnote 1 for a more recent historical insight). From another period, in “The Fate of the People’s War,” an interview with Denis Rogatyuk in Jacobin Mag, José Mariá Sison said of the New People’s Army “that there is always a region which shines during a certain period. It shines in terms of being effective during offensives…. The most conspicuous development was Samar in 1976, with the NPA repeatedly taking over the police stations and construction companies in a few years’ time” (July 28, 2018). The most popular global impression of Samareños derives from the song “Waray-Waray” (recorded by Eartha Kitt and available in her 1965 live album, In Person at the Plaza), which uses the popular term for the people and their language, and reinforces their typology as a hot-headed and always battle-ready ethnic group. With regard to the bells confiscated from the Church of San Lorenzo de Martir, these were repatriated to the Philippines by the US Department of Defense in December 2018, after 117 years.

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

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

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Source Exchange for Review of Heneral Luna

I’m including the buildup to the exchange on Heneral Luna between me and Jerrold Tarog, the film’s director and co-writer. I had been introduced to Tarog by Johven Velasco, his mentor at the University of the Philippines Film Institute. He was a major at the College of Music, located beside the College of Mass Communication, and was dropping by for a quick hello. After having been nodding acquaintances for several years (in the course of which Velasco’s sudden departure occurred), I managed to reconnect with him on the social network. [Passages in Taglish were translated to English.][1]

Monday, August 5, 2013, 11:23 AM

Joel
Hi Jerrold, it’s Joel David. Congratulations on the Cinemalaya [Philippine Independent Film Festival] results. Was Sana Dati [which had won best film and director] part of the trilogy that includes Confessional and Mangatyanan? (If so, what’s the title of the trilogy if you don’t mind? I read it somewhere and noted it but I left those notes behind in Korea. Won’t be returning until February next year [when my half-sabbatical ends].) Will there be further screenings lined up for it?

Monday, August 7, 2013, 9:02 AM

Jerrold
Hi Joel. Yes. Last film of what’s called the Camera Trilogy. Theatrical release September 25.

Joel
Thanks! Sent you a friend request.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013, 1:52 AM

Joel
Hello Jerrold, I hope you don’t mind if I ask you directly some questions which I need for fully evaluating Sana Dati. These have to do with the larger work, the Camera Trilogy.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013, 1:52 AM & Tuesday, October 22, 2013, 5:55 PM

Combined Q&A between Joel & Jerrold
1. The 3 films have characters who own & operate cameras. Is that all that unifies these films?

Plot similarities: main character goes to the province, his/her life is changed, comes back with what we expect is a new hopeful outlook on life but actually reaches a compromise. Visual similarties exist particularly in shot composition during certain important events (e.g. the wide two-shot with characters facing each other). They may be trivial but they add to overall visual integrity. I imagine the plots of all three films as clotheslines from which we hang the real concerns of the trilogy, which would be, among other things, the loss of innocence and the resulting compromises we’re forced to make to reach certain truths – maybe there’s some cognitive dissonance at work in the characters’ lives. In Confessional, the conclusions are on a socio-political level. In Mangatyanan, cultural (albeit disguised). In Sana Dati, personal. Side note re Mangatyanan: the film was an attempt at allegorical filmmaking. There’s a reason why Laya’s mother is named Luzviminda. There’s also a reason why Laya chose to forgive her mother instead of her father who molested her.

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2. I can detect some progressive agenda in Confessional (critique of local-govt political roguery) and in Mangatyanan (womanist agency). What I could see in SD was a reworking of the runaway bride narrative, including the expected containment where she accedes to committing to her conventional future. My other problem was that the main character could get away with being a runaway bride mainly because her class position affords her that privilege, and in the end some empathy is directed toward her bridegroom for having the patience to tolerate her. Am I misperceiving the narrative’s intent?
Except perhaps for Sana Dati’s attempt to subvert Pinoy genre conventions, I hesitate to identify a “progressive” agenda in any of the three films primarily because the stories are founded on very cynical roots. All three films present different levels of “giving up,” accepting loss, and moving on with a handicapped position as starting point. Accept that one is damaged then maybe there’s hope afterwards. If that kind of cynicism can be called progressive, so be it. The resulting empathy for Robert Naval in SD is partly borne out of said attempt to subvert genre conventions. Who expects the perceived bad guy to be the real good guy, after all? As for class issues, upper middle class is the film’s milieu. We cannot fault the characters for existing in a privileged position and having no social agenda within the film’s universe at that particular time the story was told. Maybe if the story started with Robert’s attempt to run for governor and focused on the resulting cynicism borne out of his loss (“You can’t be a public servant and a politician at the same time”) there would’ve been class and social commentaries in the film. But there are none, and the film is happy to exist without one.

3. If my previous observation has some degree of accuracy, would it be wrong to say that the trilogy isn’t actually concerned with progressivity after all? Or that whatever seemed progressive in the previous films was just incidental – that these are really texts that seek to uphold specific middle-class individuals as heroes of their own cine-narratives? I’m asking strictly in the spirit of wanting to know what you had in mind. As you might be aware, this line of questioning does not automatically uphold the artist’s intention as the only correct interpretation, but it definitely counts as a privileged perspective, so I’d greatly appreciate being apprised of what your project was all about. Many thanks!
Mostly answered in #2. They cannot be considered heroes. They are middle-class losers, trapped by selfishness (Sana Dati), emotional trauma (Mangatyanan), or ignorance/cowardice (Confessional). In the end, they reach a 50-50 compromise: Ryan Pastor knows the truth but chooses to keep it hidden, Laya forgives her mother (accepts fate as molested country) but not her father, Andrea Gonzaga says “I love you” to Robert even if it’s not completely true (she looks away from Robert at the last shot).

Saturday, October 10, 2015, 8:52 PM

Joel
Hi Jerrold, warm congrats for the success of Heneral Luna, which (as I told [co-producer] Ting Nebrida) I appreciated highly. I was willing to write a review but I needed a 2nd screening, but then I had to return to Korea before it opened in theaters. I keep trying to caution some academic acquaintances to keep in mind that it’s meant as a popular piece, and was received [by the general public] exactly in that way. But then I’m no longer surprised at their insistence on feeling superior to the work. [Brickbat deleted] I’m writing for another reason as well. I was being asked to revise the biography of Johven Velasco for the Cultural Center of the Philippines’s Encyclopedia [of Philippine Art’s 2nd edition], then I saw a review you wrote of his posthumously published book, titled “Velasco’s Legacy.” I remember Ellen [Ongkeko-Marfil] forwarded this to me, but I don’t remember if this got published, and I also googled the title and your name and apparently it’s unpublished. Would you mind if I posted the review on my archival blog? We’ll put your name and announce it as your article. (There are a few other pieces on the blog not written by me, but they’re all duly acknowledged.) Best regards and I’ll be looking forward to your historical trilogy, whatever shape it takes.[2]

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Sunday, October 11, 2015, 12:28 AM

Jerrold
Hi, Joel. Wow. Totally forgot about this. It’s all fine with me. Post away. Thanks for taking the effort to caution academic critics. I find it funny that intelligence doesn’t really make one immune from adopting a myopic viewpoint. Most of the criticism thrown at Luna boils down to what the critics wanted the film to be. Somehow they can’t judge the film based on what it was trying to achieve. Anyway, we just laugh it off over here. Let me know if you’d like to see the film again for review purposes.

Sunday, October 11, 2015, 7:31 PM

Joel
Salamat for the green light. Re acad critics – I didn’t caution them directly, just entirely in passing. But when an extended discussion came out, I could sense that some of them were aware of people’s warning about the paradox of claiming to be pro-people while disparaging something the audience “voted” for. The tone became defensive [as a result]. I continued upholding examples of [netizens] who differed with the film’s statements but whose perspective did not include the sense of penalizing any of the people behind the project. [Further disparagement of organized critics] I got immediate clearance from [editor & publisher] Cri-en del Carmen Pastor to review Heneral Luna for her NY-based The FilAm (my usual outlet). The timing seems right because the film will be released end of October in NYC. So could you send me the link to the [screener file]? I promise to keep it confidential and never to download it. Also, in case I rewatch it and I’ve got some further questions, hope you don’t mind if I ask you.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015, 10:08 AM

Jerrold
[After providing link] Do let me know once the review is out. And, yes, I don’t mind answering further questions.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015, 8:34 PM

Joel
Went thru the movie and still appreciated it, warts and all. I can argue it’s your best, but since that’s a matter of opinion, we’ll leave that for the review. If I may ask some questions, which have been raised by some commenters already.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015, 8:34 PM & 11:29 PM

Combined Q&A between Joel & Jerrold
1. The worst that can be said about focusing attention on Pinoys as our own worst enemy is that it can have a cynical mercenary effect – i.e., it will make the movie palatable even to illiberal American observers, since their country isn’t condemned as heavily as its actual historical role calls for. Were you aware of this possible accusation and how did you work this out?

I was aware that I was leaving many things out, especially regarding the role the Americans played during the war. But that was the whole point of the opening disclaimer. Luna is less a history lesson and more of an indictment of certain Pinoy traits that have been in existence even before the Americans came. Was it the fault of the Spaniards? Maybe. But in our current state, is it really useful to condemn our colonizers and lay the blame on them for our troubles, or should Filipinos get their act together and move forward since we’re already enjoying certain freedoms we never had before? It’s very important to acknowledge what America did but that would be an entirely different film. Clinton Palanca in Spot.ph said it best: [Luna] is a two-hour treatise on the current state of the nation, couched in costumes and poetic intonations of a fictive 1898.

2. A few people I knew who might have been progressive or sympathetic [toward the film] refused to watch. I later figured out that they were Cavite-based, or were born in Cavite. Personally I’m glad the movie refuses to perform the humanist act of sparing everyone from blame. But doesn’t the film plug into the “we’re too parochial to be a nation” argument by criticizing certain participants according to their place of origin?
I will have to refer to one of the film’s inspirations: Nick Joaquin’s A Question of Heroes, where the author identified cavitissmo and regionalism as instrumental to the collapse of the revolution. I think once people read that and Vivencio Jose’s The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna, they’ll pretty much understand our take on things. Some historians have told me that regionalism doesn’t exist but I beg to disagree. Regionalism isn’t the cause of our troubles now (probably because traditional and social media have done their part in addressing our commonalities) but, back then, when people would proudly identify themselves by their place of origin, I believe it played a big role. However, you can’t deny that Filipinos are still clannish today. Whether that contributes to our feeble sense of nationhood, I’m not sure. Maybe.

3. This is the closest you’ve gotten to a full-length studio assignment, even if it’s an indie studio [that produced the film]. The indicators would be not just the budget and scope, but also the fact that you were hired to work on a script that was written by the producers. How were you able to make sure that the movie would not wind up the impersonal & mechanical metteur-en-scène type of output? Sorry, these queries sound difficult and may not even be resolvable. But I’ll appreciate any light you could shed. Again, I’m not out to judge harshly (or so I hope). I’m also taking the opportunity to learn from the experience of watching and interacting. Maraming salamat! And congrats several times over!
I actually once did a full-length film for [mainstream outfit] Regal called Aswang. Not too proud of that one though. I asked permission from the producers of HL to rewrite the original script, which was entirely in English. I added more humorous bits (especially the dynamics among Luna, Roman, and Rusca), toned down the more theatrical dialogue, added and deleted scenes, and put in every cinematic flourish I could think of that was appropriate to the piece (including the reference to [General Antonio Luna’s painter-brother Juan’s prizewinning masterpiece] “Spoliarium”). That’s how I always turn an existing screenplay into something more personal – by rewriting it and making it somehow my own. I did that in my [omnibus-horror series] Shake, Rattle & Roll projects too.

Thanks a lot, Joel! I didn’t mind the questions at all. It’s a breather from the countless questions that have been asked ad nauseam in god knows how many interviews I’ve had. Hope it helped clarify things.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015, 12:34 AM

Joel
Very honest & admirable answers. I always make a point of understanding where an author’s coming from so that I don’t wind up imposing my own should-have-beens in my reading. Sometimes I quote directly, but generally I just use the author’s intention as starting point. I haven’t seen your horror films so that’s a gap in my familiarity with your output. Also the critical treatment that Heneral Luna deserves right now won’t be one more review (like what I’ll be doing) but rather a scholarly article, to be able to inspect the innovative phenomena that it participated in – social media, historical discourse, indie-mainstream intersections, etc. Times like these make me wish Johven were still around, because he would have found the perfect way to attain the perfect critique. That’s also my ethos in film criticism: the effort should always be worthy of the object that it’s studying, otherwise it won’t have a shot at any kind of long-term significance. Once again, salamat for your effort in formulating your answers. I’ve always maintained that the best artists are the ones capable of critical thinking (which is why critics should also understand the artistic process). That plus connecting with the mass audience – a difficult challenge that only few have been able to hurdle. HL’s Exhibit A for that standard of achievement.

Jerrold
Thank you very much, Joel. Yes, I do wish Johven were around. I would’ve wanted to know his thoughts on everything that’s been happening. I truly appreciate your effort in knowing where the creators are coming from. That helps a lot in the discourse. I’ll be looking forward to your article.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015, 8:52 PM

Jerrold
[After reading a draft of the review] I don’t see any inaccuracies. It’s all good with me. Love the closing statement! Haha.[3]

Notes

[1] The review I wrote, “Antonio Luna’s Fall and Rise,” was published on October 15, 2015, at The FilAm.

[2] The other installations in Tarog’s second formal trilogy would be biopics of Gregorio del Pilar – being produced as of first quarter of 2018 and titled Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral [Goyo: The Young General] – and of President Manuel L. Quezon.

[3] Subsequent discussions in this message thread pertained to Tarog’s participation in a foreign film festival as well as his responses to a takedown of Heneral Luna, attributing the rise of fascist sentiment to the film.

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Source Exchange for Review of Vampariah

Vampariah was the closing film of the 2016 Filipino Arts & Cinema International, which I attended as recipient of the Gawad Lingap Sining (Art Nurturer Award). FACINE founder and director Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr. introduced me to Matthew Abaya, whom I sought out after the screening to congratulate and ask if he didn’t mind my reviewing it. When I told him that that could entail some Q&A exchanges, he indicated his willingness to participate. As soon as I recovered from the trip, I initiated a Facebook Messenger discussion thread that included Mauro Tumbocon. I edited the exchange below to exclude superfluous or redundant material. My own messages are indented. The review itself came out in early 2017.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016, 8:24 PM

Joel
Hi Matthew (with Mau listening in), I know that if I keep aiming to complete prior assignments I’ll never be able to get around to reviewing Vampariah. So I’m writing to you now to see if we can arrange for this. I normally require at least two screenings of any film, since the 1st is where I allow for my subjective take and observation of audience responses and the 2nd is when I write notes. That means I need one more screening – doesn’t have to be theatrical this time; if you have a screener or a link to an online posting, that would be fine. I assure you that it won’t circulate beyond me. The other matter is venue. I have only one ready outlet, the NY-based TheFilAm.net, which is edited by a friend of mine. I usually ask whether the film will be having a Tri-State or North American release so I can refer to it in my review. Other producers or directors prefer a different venue and time frame; they just tell me where and when (for example, for a Philippine daily by such-and-such a date), I write the piece and give it to them or to their contact person in the publication. Since I’m in neither Pinas nor US, I can’t cultivate these contacts myself. But I do prefer to tailor my writing to specific readers (in terms of vocabulary, length, tone, etc.), even in the case of TheFilAm with its 1,500-word limit. I don’t ask for payment because at this time I won’t need it (plus it’s always insultingly low, although I used to rely on the $30-per-review checks I would get as a resident reviewer during the late 1980s). If a check’s available, I always request the editor or producer or director to donate it to any favorite charity. As I prepare the review, I’d also often ask anyone in production (usually the director) about certain background info on the project, or list any issues I might find regarding the text, for them to answer if they wish to. Most critics, and some of my graduate-school classmates, consider this a wrong procedure, but it always worked for me, and I suspect they’ve come around to doing it, if they wanted to be productive in the long term. I still have to meet a film person who felt this interaction was unnecessary, so that confirms for me that it’s just the right thing to do. Will look forward to your response. Best regards.

Thursday, November 24, 2016, 4:09 AM

Matthew
Thank you. You can watch Vampariah again [at this online venue]. Let me know if it plays OK. Thanks again for giving the film a good look. There are many layers to the film and I am happy to talk about them. I don’t think any reviews have been made with the subtext of post-colonialism which is a major theme of the film. With the current climate of political relations between the US and the Philippines, I would be curious as to your interpretation.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016, 8:48 AM

Joel
Thanks for the link. Just a quick clarification: no, I don’t (wish to) get paid for reviewing. If you’ve got a budget for it, just donate it to a lesbian POC NGO, if one exists. So TheFilAm.net as outlet will be OK with you? (Some of their articles get picked up by Philippine media.) Is there any future screening or release of Vampariah I can point readers to? Last, have you got any write-ups (by you or others) about yourself? Salamat. Hope to get this done soon!

Matthew
Sounds good. As far as future screenings and distribution goes, we are still sorting out distribution options. We are planning more US and international screenings next year. A homecoming to the Philippines is in the works. Nothing is solid yet.

Joel
So would a review be useful at this time or would you prefer to wait? I can work with either option. If you want the review timed for some event, just let me know. Otherwise I’ll just mention your plans for the film as you’d written.

Matthew
Hmmm. Good question. At this time I kind of would like to get as much exposure as we can. We don’t have anything to report for next year just yet but it would be nice to get film festivals and audiences excited to see it happen in their town. I think we are lacking a lot of good reviews on the internet as a whole. At least we have some good radio podcast but nothing in writing. The best one we have is with SF Sonic.

Joel
OK then, I’ll let [the editor] know that I’ll be drafting a review, maybe by next week. She tends to rush me but that’s OK – it forces me to work more quickly.

Matthew
Haha thanks. [laugh]

Joel
Not to be too big-headed about it, but if you read the NY Times review of [Jerrold Tarog’s] Heneral Luna, it sounded suspiciously close to what I wrote for TheFilAm. [link provided]

Thursday, November 24, 2016, 10:30 AM

Matthew
For real? Wow.

Joel
Just my conceit. Or maybe delusion haha.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016, 12:53 PM

Matthew
I think it might’ve been lifted from your review.

Joel
Some basic insights were what I recognized. I don’t mind, since mine came out 1st, and ideas can’t be copyrighted anyway. Some of my earlier declarations got propagated in the past, but not my 2nd thoughts or reversals about those same ideas – like the statement that the Marcos era constituted a Golden Age of cinema. BTW, where can I find some basic info about you?

Mauro
I love that statement about the Golden Age of [Philippine] cinema.

Matthew
I can send you my bio. Yes I love the Golden Age.

Joel
Sige, pls send me a copy. I tried repudiating that Golden Age statement but it didn’t take off. Maybe I should conduct a stronger self-deconstruction. [smile]

Mauro
It will be all right as long as you are clear about its meaning, and at the same time, are cautious about its use one way or another. It’s also important to periodize our history.

Joel
My point was: the 1st Golden Age “theory” resulted in an underappreciation of 1960s independent cinema, so the 2nd one shouldn’t distract us from inspecting any productive efforts that were done after February ’86.

Mauro
You mean, post ’86 pre-digital.

Joel
Yes, the periods between supposed Golden Ages. Many directors did some of their best output during those moments – Gerry de Leon, [Lamberto] Avellana, [Cesar] Gallardo, [Cesar] Amigo during the 1960s, [Chito] Roño, [Marilou] Diaz-Abaya, [Carlos] Siguion-Reyna, a few others during the ’90s.

Matthew
Wow [smile]. Was ’86 the beginning of digital?

Mauro
Digital may have started in 1999 with Jon Red’s Still Lives.[1]

Matthew
Yeah that’s when I remember digital becoming more a trend.

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Mauro
Hence 1986 to 1999 is indeed fertile ground for study, the period immediately preceding the surge of independents via digital – which was of course, immediately post-martial law.

Joel
It became standard industry format a few years after, around mid-2000s.

Friday, November 25, 2016, 3:35 AM

Matthew
Check this out [link given]: my film won 2 awards at the same event in the feature-film category alongside [Pedring Lopez’s] Nilalang which is another Filipino monster film. I’m looking for more write ups like this. I picked up three [comments] in the last week and there’s actually no press on it.

Saturday, December 31, 2016, 1:50 AM

Joel
Hi Matthew – I tried to watch [what you provided] but the website said the password was incorrect. (I copied and pasted what you wrote, then I typed it out – same result. I’ll be leaving in less than two days so I’m trying to watch it before I wind up with the Philippines’s slow internet speed.) [After Matthew provides a fix.] Thanks and advanced Happy New Year! Sorry it took me this long to start watching!

Matthew
No worries. We will be going into 2017 with a distributor so it would be really good to have a review.

Joel
I’m also thinking of catching the better entries at the Christmas film festival so that when I make a declaration about Vampariah, I would have a basis for making the assertion. But if that takes too long, then I’ll just draft the review and turn it in to The FilAm.

Matthew
Thank you so much. I definitely want to go back to the Philippines.

Joel
I’ll be there until late July [2017, for a] half-sabbatical. Let me know if you’ll be in town. Maybe you can interest one of the local festivals in showcasing it? Cinemalaya & the Metro Manila filmfest are the ones where non-mainstream entries have a chance of having some audience patronage. Otherwise you’ll be up against the majors in cahoots with the theater owners, and only a handful have been able to buck that system.

Matthew
Will be really nice to get into those festivals but I don’t have a good in [frown]. I need to find a way get their attention. Having more written about the film would be helpful.

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Joel
Will see what I can do. Plus there’s the stuck-in-the-’60s brand of nationalism, where if you’re not homegrown or home-produced, you get ignored at best or criticized at worst. Better to take careful steps. Mau might also be able to help out. I’ll see what I can do by way of generating some buzz for it.

Matthew
I’ve been told to expect a lot of criticism. I guess the film fights up and [claims] a very interesting spot, being an American movie done by Filipinos who were born and raised here. I appreciate your wisdom on this.

Joel
I’ve seen Fil-Ams go through that predicament before, where they’re never “authentic” enough for either culture. That’s why I found Vampariah’s embrace of the liminal so true & refreshing.

Matthew
Authenticity is definitely an issue related in the film. That’s awesome. [applause]

Joel
It’s raised as an issue in a few other Fil-Am productions, but this is the 1st time where even the stylistic elements demonstrate the struggle. Will show you the draft when I’ve finished it for your comments &/or corrections.

Matthew
Exactly. I definitely feel a strong connection to films like [Rod Pulido’s] Flip Side or [Gene Cajayon’s] The Debut, albeit a very different kind of film.

Sunday, January 1, 2017, 12:55 AM

Joel
Hi Matt (saw this nickname in one website but if it’s wrong pls let me know) – would you mind if I ask some questions about the movie? I’ve looked at the press materials but they weren’t comprehensive (and didn’t have to be). No need for a quick answer, just do it when you have the time. I’m supposed to be in transit myself, from Korea to Pinas, by tomorrow.

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Sunday, January 1, 2017, 12:55 AM & 7:49 AM

Combined Q&A between Joel & Matt:
1 – The 1st supernatural creature was “Kouji” (from the credits at IMDb) – a creature that hops in order to get around. Is this based on a local or regional “lower” myth in the Philippines? It seems similar to some early Euro accounts of undead movements.
Kouji is a hunter. He dies when Bampinay kills him for trying to hunt down Mahal. Mr Fang is a Chinese vampire called a jiangshi – 殭屍. Hack Daddy refers to him as a kyonshi, which is the Japanese pronunciation. The character uses this word because it is easier for him to pronounce. I always found it interesting that 2 creatures I loved to watch movies about in my teen years, aswangs and jiangshis, never faced off in a movie before. Mr. Fang is somewhat-tragic comic relief. He lost everything and is left to wander aimlessly hunting and being hunted. In the end he is sort of released and begins to recapture part of his humanity.

2 – The hunters stick some yellow sheets with what appears to be Oriental (Chinese?) characters on them. Are these Buddhist prayers similar to how East Asian cultures vanquish their supernatural monsters? There’s also what appears to be shadow puppetry that resembles wayang kulit – let me know if I’m wrong, or if this was unintended.
Mahal apparently has some old magic in her. Vampire films often follow European traditions and it seems she knows how to deal with a Chinese vampire like Mr. Fang. (Mr. Fang’s name is a homage to Mr. Vampire films from Hong Kong.) [The use of] wayang kulit was intentional. I had written this lengthy backstory to be sort of like Scrooge’s haunting by the ghosts of [Charles Dickens’s] A Christmas Carol, but the scene required us to take a dramatic yet bold way to tell a long backstory without running up the production budget. I always wanted to incorporate Asian shadow puppetry in the film. Aureen Almario (Bampinay) and players at Bindlestiff Studio often incorporate [ethnic material] into their stage plays. She was instrumental in the construction of the scene.

3 – The TV aswang explorer who gets killed – was that meant to be a reference to Steve Irwin? More on references – was Blade an influence? (I’m not against the idea of homage.) Because I’m thinking of calling it by the same genre, punk horror. Also, the main characters are “half-breeds.”
“The Cryptid Hunter” John Bates is based on Josh Gates of the show Destination Truth. I used it as a criticism of expats and “whitesplaining.” You can say we killed it.

4 – The monsters that Michele creates – are they zombies, or zombified vampires?
They are both, but mostly missing disinters who don’t agree with a hidden master plan designed by the faceless male voice that controls Michele. [Incidentally,] Michele Kilman is intended to resemble Michelle Malkin.

Blade, Underworld, Interview with the Vampire, The Lost Boys, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula must have been my biggest influences.[2] Blade and Underworld feature martial arts, a goth-punk driven score, and a vampire protagonist. It seemed like a great template for a more complex story and capable of making a story about identity relatable. Clearly a homage to my favorite vampire films while introducing something entirely different to the American landscape. It wasn’t merely trying to explain it to non-Filipinos and non-Asians.

5 – Bampinay drawing Mahal into realizing and accepting her aswang nature – was that intended to be an allegory about Fil-Ams completing their identity via Philippine culture? (It’s a complex issue because Pinas culture is itself highly syncretized.)
Yes indeed.

6 – Where did you have your film training and/or apprenticeship?
The bulk was in community college at CSM (now defunct) – same class as fellow Pinoy filmmaker HP Mendoza. I also took more technical classes at the City College of San Francisco, San Francisco State University. I worked on other feature films as an assistant, to build chops. [Additional remark: Thank you. This film does need a little decoding as it has to be left open to its creative interpretation.]

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Joel
These are all the questions I have for now. I don’t know if you read Tagalog, but the best recent Philippine novel I’ve come across is Ricky Lee’s Amapola in 65 Chapters (Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata), which is also queer-themed but involves a cross-dressing performer as the manananggal hero. (I once wrote a review of it.) Once more, no need to rush with the answers. Thanks and Happy New Year.

Sunday, January 1, 2017, 7:49 AM

Matthew
I hope this adds clarity. You both have a Happy New Year!

Thursday, January 12, 2017, 9:17 PM

Joel
The draft I prepared [is attached]. I forwarded to [the editor] Cri-en Pastor because she asked for it over a week ago, but I can still make corrections in about a day, before she uploads it. Wasn’t able to use all the info I compiled (plus my usual small notebook of scribbles) but it’s always better to have more knowledge than you need. It will also be helpful in more scholarly writing I might wind up doing later, or if I have advisees interested in this type of cinema. Many thanks for the help – and pls let me know if there are urgent/serious errors that have to be corrected.

Friday, January 13, 2017, 2:17 AM

Matthew
Thank you so much. I really appreciate that you mention that we are using a subversive genre as a vehicle and a means of empowerment. It is the main takeaway from the film. What do you think will be different from the final [version of the review]?

Friday, January 13, 2017, 4:08 AM

Joel
Unless I warn Cri-en of any serious errors and give her a revised draft, she’ll upload what I submitted. I provide myself the luxury of a more-final-than-final version (including updates and corrections) via my blog. So I’ll see what else I can improve after a while, and incorporate it in the blog version.

Mauro
Perhaps, if okay with Matt, you may as well qualify – “Bampinay” was not his first short film; he has been doing short films since FACINE started 23 years ago, most of them of the horror/sci-fi genre, except for one called “HoMe,” a collage of photos, the text referring to cultural identity and Filipino iconography, which I love much. Matt, you may add to this too.

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Matthew
Oh yeah. Thanks Mauro. I been also known for music videos [like Mud’s “Careless”].

Joel
Corrected and forwarded the draft already. Don’t be surprised if the publication changes the title. That’s standard practice in journalism, where editors have to fill up available spaces in their page layout. In my books and in my blog, I usually restore the title I suggested if I find it preferable to what the editor prepared. Cri-en said she’ll get it out “tonight” (tri-state area time).

Wednesday, January 25, 2017, 11:35 AM

Matthew
One other thing that’s been hitting me lately in Hollywood is the whole “whitewashing” issue with [the remake of Mamoru Oshii’s] Ghost in the Shell. I made Vampariah to counter that. I hope this one interview I did in NYC comes out where I opened up a lot about that.

Joel
Is this the Japanese anime? I remember watching that after I learned that it was one of the main inspirations for [the Wachowski sisters’] The Matrix.

Matthew
The Hollywood remake. I love the anime.

Joel
Me too. Didn’t know Hollywood remade it, but that’s no longer surprising. Sige, I’ll look it up.

Matthew
Basically I spoke of how 2016 was a challenging year for Asian Am actors and a film like Vampariah if pitched to a Hollywood studio would not get made, mostly for its casting.

Notes

[1] Mike de Leon’s Bilanggo sa Dilim, made in 1986, was produced by the Philippine branch of Sony Solid Video and screened at Wave Cinema in Cubao, which was equipped to screen films shot in video. See my review titled “Return to Form” in The National Pastime.

[2] These films were directed by the following: Stephen Norrington (Blade); Len Wiseman (Underworld); Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire); Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys) and Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

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Film May Be Dead, but Film Culture Is Alive and Well

Respeto [Respect]
Directed by Treb Monteras II
Written by Treb Monteras II & Njel de Mesa

A little over a decade ago, Philippine cinema succumbed to the inevitable: the outpacing of celluloid production by digital technology, with filmographic and critical evaluators resisting the shift, insisting on recognizing “real” films as opposed to (paraphrasing a Hollywood filmmaker) “TV on the big screen.” As it turned out, the change would be inevitable for the rest of the world as well – the Philippines was merely more vulnerable to this end-time development because it was weaker and poorer than most other active film-producing countries.

As in several other cases of national endeavors, our practitioners persisted in the new medium until the rest of the world took notice – almost the same time that our local taste-mongers did. A little-known fact is that the first Filipino video-feature film, Mike de Leon’s Bilanggo sa Dilim, was made over three decades ago, the same year that the Marcos fascist dictatorship was overthrown. Since the country’s full digital turn, all the exciting film developments have occurred in either independent production or in that liminal space where indies and mainstream keep attempting to coexist despite the unavoidable tensions between them.

The most prominent crossover examples would be where an indie release unexpectedly reaches a mainstream crowd, previously realized two years ago when Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna kept drawing increasingly larger audiences until it finally assumed blockbuster proportion – the opposite of the usual mainstream crowd-drawers, where the audience numbers tend to dwindle as the weeks go by. The latest example of this left-field conquest is Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s Kita Kita, a romantic comedy set in Sapporo, Japan, with a “temporarily blind” Beauty (played by Alessandra de Rossi) falling for her unlikely Beast (comedian Empoy Marquez). The movie has been criticized for inadvertently validating a stalker situation, but de Rossi is such a confident and fearless performer that she manages to convince viewers that her character’s resistance and eventual capitulation to her co-performer’s insistent courtship was hers alone to make.

The second crossover type of movie is the one where a mainstream actor stretches, so to speak, by gracing an indie project with her or his presence. Of the younger performers, male stars like John Lloyd Cruz and Piolo Pascual have been able to boost their stock by appearing in the European festival winners of Lav Diaz. But when we speak of the previous Golden Age (roughly coinciding with the martial-law period of Ferdinand Marcos), it’s the women who reigned supreme. Local superstar Nora Aunor and her perennial rival Vilma Santos have added Cinemalaya entries to their filmographic lists, and this year it is Sharon Cuneta’s turn, with Mes de Guzman’s Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha. The film further enhances Cuneta’s bid as mature star-performer, and will be distributed by Star Cinema, the country’s primary mainstream entity, but might be revised based on critical responses from its Cinemalaya screenings (which were nevertheless always full).

A third type deserves to be mentioned: a movie that deserves to cross over but gets lost in the shuffle as well as the vagaries of audience preferences. This occurred in the post-Cinemalaya event, the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino. Pauwi Na is the kind of movie that could move you despite all your doubts about its surface qualities and its (literally) old narrative, drawn from an early 2000s newspaper report. Each performer is provided with her or his moments of grace, and as in all family histories, the mother is the one that holds the whole unit together. To say that Cherry Pie Picache outshines everyone is not to demean an excellent ensemble; it just affirms what has become increasingly evident since the turn of the millennium – that the former distracted and clueless “bold” newcomer has transformed herself into the performer to beat in local cinema, never hesitant about displaying raw emotions, but also consummate in processing those emotions so that they function in precise increments, in perfect consonance with her co-actors and the plot machinery. Sadly, the PPP screenings I attended of Pauwi Na were always less than half-full, which made the audience’s enthusiastic applause at the end feel like small consolation. If you haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor and make the acquaintance of something that is whole and perfect after you’ve uncovered it, instead of the usual perfect-looking product that has nothing much worth treasuring inside.

The movie that generates the most excitement, in terms of our discussion, is the one that attempts the example embodied by releases like Heneral Luna: an indie production that, unlike Kita Kita, does not aspire to any existing commercial formula, but instead works out one of its own, introducing the audience to a new form that they could take to heart. In effect, this practice replicates the innovations successfully attempted by such past Golden Age masters as Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal (to name the two most prominent ones). Serendipitously, one such release broke out in this year’s Cinemalaya edition, proffering music and street poetry, drawn-from-headlines incidents, and locales that the impoverished majority of movie-goers would be intimately familiar with.

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Titled Respeto, the film is directed by Treb Monteras II (introduced via a cameo in the movie as O.G. Birador), a long-time hiphop events organizer. The local rap scene has been documented in indie films before, most famously in Jim Libiran’s Tribu (2007), which like Respeto also won Cinemalaya’s top prize. This time around, the entry focuses on the YouTube sensation FlipTop Battle League, which is the talent competition (founded by Alaric “Anygma” Yuson, son of poet Krip Yuson) for aspiring Pinoy rap artists. The millions of FlipTop fans will recognize stars of the genre like Abra and Loonie (who play lead and antagonist) and several others, and will immediately understand why the movie has probably the biggest number of words ever uttered in any Filipino release: at the level of basic survival, when one has nothing to one’s name except a multitude of problems, the only wealth that one can lay claim to is one’s words.

This is not to say that Respeto has no visual acuity to speak of; on the contrary, it renders the slums of Manila as they’re rarely seen. To say that poverty becomes picturesque in the film would normally be tantamount to accusing the artists of denying the painful realities of depressed and congested living conditions. Yet the quotidian elements in the film help explain why people manage to survive despite poverty and degradation: what Respeto’s images celebrate are not the economic conditions, but rather the sense of community and the striving for betterment of slum residents. An early episode, where the government attempts to demolish the residents’ homes, depicts how the people in the neighborhood – employees, vagrants, even criminals – come together armed with potent yet not-illegal weapons (something that you’ll have to find out for yourself when the movie reaches your screen).

The scene ends an extensive expository section where Hendrix (Abra riffing on his comic bully-prone FlipTop persona) engages a hiphop gang in a street showdown and gets chased for smacking his opponent. He and his homies wind up being shooed away by an ornery bookstore owner whom they eventually call Doc because of his ability in improvisational (pre-rap) poetry, known to scholars and old-time enthusiasts as balagtasan. Doc recognizes Hendrix’s hunger for “respeto” and decides to mentor him in the craft of language. The unusual thing about Hendrix is that when he narrates his own experience, he’s able to rap expertly; but in competitive situations, he all but “chokes” (a term for a tongue-tied word warrior). Hendrix’s model, who also becomes his rival, is Breezy G, a mean and brutal champ who refuses to be outdone by anyone, even outside FlipTop scenarios. Driven to desperation, Hendrix decides to short-circuit his lessons from Doc by cribbing some verses tossed away by the old man.

The interaction between Hendrix and Doc provides the spiritual core of Respeto. Dido de la Paz compensates for his late introduction by investing Doc with a full range of quirks and contradictions that only become clear to Hendrix (and the audience) when he provides a backstory that turns his relationship with his biological son, a corrupt police officer, into a painful paradox (a word that Hendrix initially does not understand). Respeto moves in and out of anti-realist touches – an exchange between mentor and student that turns out to have been rhymed and metered, or between rapper and girlfriend that talks about each other’s pain entirely without words – but its self-assured stylistic expertise allows its audience to take pleasure, rather than feel resentment, in such liberties. Monteras, here making his feature-length directorial debut, has actually been an old hand in music videos, counting over 300 entries; Monster Jimenez, the film’s producer, had also been a writer and documentary filmmaker, and shares with Monteras a progressive political orientation even in such matters as gender issues.

Respeto is Exhibit A in how oppositional and critical politics, highly resisted (for now) by the local population, can be conveyed to the ordinary working-class audience: by using language they understand and places that are recognizable to them, enacted by characters they may have known all their lives. I conducted my own little experiment by bringing a couple of solid pro-administration youths to my second screening, and saw how their delighted response effected a new view toward the negation of due process in the Duterte administration’s deadly drug war. At a time when intellectual responses to policy debates no longer suffice, it is time for true artists, with their freedom from pre-existing ideological biases, to intervene; as Jimenez said in an exchange, “it wasn’t so much a system of ideas that [she and Monteras] were looking for…. We placed the story where violence is so ingrained in the characters’ narratives, they find it no longer shocking and it becomes part of their everyday life.” What Respeto heralds, in an immediate sense, is the emergence of fully formed talents who had been paying their dues in overlooked or disrespected formats. What it may succeed at best is in initiating a long-overdue historical demand for a humane approach to addiction as a serious health problem. This is how change is gladsomely achieved.

[First published August 18, 2017, in The FilAm]

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Source Exchange for Review of Respeto

This is the exchange from which I drew certain insights and quotes for my review of Respeto. It was initiated on Facebook Messenger, and continued via email. Monster Jimenez answered initially, quoting excerpts from my FB Messenger queries; then after a response from me, Treb Monteras II included his remarks in Monster’s aforementioned response. To make this extensive first set of answers easier to follow via internet browser, I indented my queries and used boldface for Treb Monteras’s interjections.

On Tuesday, August 15, 2017, 11:50:41 AM

Monster
Hi Joel, I’m looping in Treb in case he wants to pitch in.

From FB Messenger

Hi Monster, si Joel David. I’m drafting a review of Respeto, which I saw twice as part of my preparation. It’s for Cri-en Pastor’s The FilAm, a New York-based online mag. I hope you don’t mind if I ask you some questions, since Cri-en’s expecting my article any time soon. First is regarding research or immersion: was there anyone in the production team who resided, or grew up, in Pandacan? If not, how did the project achieve its familiarity with the place?

Monster
It was never really rooted in Pandacan, but I remember Treb really had this location in mind since he passed Doc’s bookstore all the time. It was always going to be Navotas or Manila. But we prioritized Manila because Navotas gets flooded easily plus it’s really faaaar.

Treb
I was late for a meeting with the Respeto team when Waze forced me to take a different route to Makati. That’s how I saw this corner sari-sari store that eventually became Doc’s Bookstore.

From FB Messenger

The FlipTop fans I brought with me during my 2nd viewing identified the same guy that some filmmaker friends said was the director (the person who “choked” during his turn at the mike), but they called him by a rapper name. So Treb Monteras raps, or competes, or is a FlipTop enthusiast?

Monster
Yes OG Birador is our director. Treb Monteras is a big hiphop guy and the main reason why I joined in the first place because I know he’s the only guy who could do this na “legit.” He knew he had to do it because no rapper would be willing to “choke” even if it’s just fiction.

Treb
I’m not a rapper but I used to organize hiphop events back in the early 2000s, but the scene was very different then from what we have now.

From FB Messenger

Did the project participants go over previous depictions of the local rap scene, specifically Tribu? I’m asking because I noticed a distinct difference in the handling of gender issues, with Tribu seemingly unaware of the sexism that it depicted. Respeto I thought had a better sense of gender dynamics, since both protagonists (Hendrix and Doc) were feminized in terms of their power relations. How prominent was the question of gender politics in the pursuit of the project’s completion?

Monster
I love Tribu! But it was never part of the conversation in terms of reference or anything that informed our production. Gender politics was definitely part of the conversation and it’s difficult to process because it’s still dominated by men who think like machos, or at the very least are unaware of their prejudice. So Treb was open enough to let me raise those questions and we tried to address them when we could.

Treb
I have yet to see Tribu. Thankfully, from the very start Monster was very vocal about sexism. Candy’s rape almost wound up on the cutting room floor. We didn’t take it out because it is very essential to Hendrix’s emotional journey. It took us two weeks to fine-tune that scene.

From FB Messenger

Treb Monteras had done some short films before, and you worked on a documentary, if I’m not mistaken. Were these formats crucial to the making of Respeto?

Monster
I don’t think Treb has done any narrative before. He’s done over 300 music videos. I’m a documentary filmmaker, yes. I think it’s safe to say that anything we do helps how we think about our creative work. Treb’s massive work in music videos has helped him for sure. The guy thinks in terms of music and beat, but he is also a natural storyteller. I think in terms of story and narrative, and having written and made films my whole career, I’m obsessed with narrative. But we do share the same political leanings and we wanted to make a movie that meant something to both of us.

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From FB Messenger

Sorry to be troubling you with questions like these, but I couldn’t find any official internet source that addresses these issues in the film. As a matter of procedure, I always take the trouble to inquire further about a work before I comment on it; I used to get a lot of flak for doing this (during the time when critiques of “intentional fallacies” and declarations of “the artist is dead” were fashionable), but I think I’ve convinced some friends that it works out better. In case you might have some queries about my output, please feel free to go over my archival blog, Ámauteurish!

From FB Messenger [sent later]

Sorry as well for one more follow-up query: the political content in the film tends to skew to a critique of some policies of the Duterte regime. (My FlipTop companions, who were pro-RDD, liked the movie immensely nevertheless.) It also appears that the Doc character had a left background but never rejected it; he presumably ended his activist commitment because of the trauma of torture that he and his family underwent. If the movie were pro-left (the orthodox wing), then it would be pro-admin up to a point; if it were left but not pro-RDD, then its critique would be harsher. Does Respeto have an ideological orientation that can be pegged to any of the currently existing political groups?

Monster
For me, it wasn’t so much a system of ideas that we were looking for. When I received a draft of the film when Treb asked me to join him, it ended on a much more triumphant note. The movie was first conceptualized by Treb many years ago, before I or anyone outside of Davao really understood who Duterte is. The drug dealing and corrupt police were already part of the story then, but when we started working on the film this year, as we kept on revising the script, we arrived at a natural conclusion: this can’t end on a good note. We have right now, in our bloodied hands, a systemic societal problem that allows no one to exit. Nobody escapes and poetry is not enough. We place the story where violence is so ingrained in their narratives, there is no longer the shock but is part of their everyday life. PRRD is sitting on that chair so yes he is definitely a big part of this problematic system.

Hope this helps!

[Sgd.] Monster Jimenez
Managing Director
Arkeofilms | THIS SIDE UP

[Sgd.] Treb Monteras II
Director

Tuesday, August 15, 2017, 7:46:48 PM

Joel
OK, this is tremendous. I’m being (typically) pressured to finish the review ASAP. I’m usually given a 1,500-word maximum – which I tend to exceed up to 2k words. I think you should engage the services of a journalist so you can get your answers in the open, for the enlightenment of the public. It also better helps audiences prepare to view the material. I could help spin this off into a workable Q&A but I’ve got too many deadlines until my sabbatical ends on Aug. 28 – and after that I’ll be too busy teaching, since I requested a double load, or four subjects. If you find a receptive journo, you can forward our exchange to her or him so that she/he can just expand on it. Re the answer on Tribu pala – I might also bring in Ari, which is about (balagtasan-like) improvisational poetry in Pampanga. So Respeto may be the love child of the two films, in a sense. 🙂

Treb – if you’re able to provide some important point or two I’ll do my best to integrate it while drafting the review tonight. Many thanks sa inyo and congrats again!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017, 08:38:47 PM

Monster
I thought Treb passed by that bookstore a lot. As it turns out he only saw it during pre-prod! Re Ari. I do love that movie. I really like movies about language because it’s so hard to capture. Again, no reference was made to this movie.

Saturday, August 26, 2017, 11:48:00 AM, via Facebook Messenger

Monster
Hi Joel! I haven’t gotten around to thank you for your great write-up. We’re about to go on a wide release soon and will start sharing some of these features. Just have one correction in your article, or maybe I just misunderstood? OG Birador is not a real person, people might think he is. He’s just the name that Treb took on for that one scene. Anyways, just a heads up.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017, 10:27:00 PM, via Facebook Messenger

Joel
Hi Monster, thanks for the clarification. I remember sending you and Treb a message here on FB Messenger, including a copy of the review I drafted. [Some confidential information had to be deleted from the rest of the paragraph.]

Too bad, if FB Messenger didn’t mess up the message I sent you earlier, I could have included the correction in the FilAm article. But then again, I revise and update all my non-journal articles and post them on my blog, so I’ll be doing that for Respeto. I’m thinking of expanding the review a bit so that it doesn’t have to compromise any longer with the word-count limit, aggravated by the forced inclusion of the other film titles. Once I’ve done the revision, I’ll update you and Treb and post it on my FB Wall. BTW, I also posted (on my blog) our exchanges so that researchers can see a fuller view of how the movie was created. I’ll revise that exchange to add the correction you provided just now. Many thanks as always, and I’m looking forward to more output from your team – and from you, as woman filmmaker as well!

Á!

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Source Exchange for “The Transnational Pastime”

This exchange conducted on Facebook’s Messenger app formed the basis of “The Transnational Pastime: An Interview with Joel David,” conducted in early 2017 and published in the June 2017 (volume 4, number 1) issue of Plaridel. The interviewer was Paul Douglas Grant, a professor of film at the University of San Carlos in Cebu City. Answers that I first drafted as Notepad text files and attached to the Messenger service are indicated by the descriptor “From text file” and indented (appearing as italicized material in smartphone apps).

Saturday, February 25, 2017, 9:28 PM

Paul
Hi Joel, so…can we start with just getting a kind of run-through of your career, your work with the Manunuri, you studies abroad, your publishing history, your current work, etc.? And then maybe having written a number of books on Philippine cinema (and I see that there is a forthcoming book on Manila by Night!), you could talk a bit about the decision to have an online presence, and in particular your very generous approach to sharing your materials, for instance the PDF versions of your books that you have posted for free on Amauteurish! From there I can get a bit more precise. I’ll try to cause you as little pain and hassle as possible.

Joel
Hi Paul, I’ll try to draft a reply so that it won’t get lost when FB Messenger crashes (which happens occasionally on my laptop). Then I’ll send it to you tomorrow, if that’s all right with you. Thanks for being considerate about the “pain and hassle,” although I’m at the stage of discovering pleasure in pain. Never too late for anything, as they say.

Paul
Haha OK, OK, no rush either. Just to get the ball rolling. Thanks so much for doing this Joel.

Saturday, February 25, 2017, 5:02 AM

Joel [from text-file attachment]

My film criticism was something that started out as an option that evolved into a phase and that eventually solidified before I knew what to do with it. I started writing book reviews for the high-school paper – which sufficiently impressed the teachers who were then deciding whom to send to some secondary-school press conference. In college I attempted a few film reviews but felt frustrated about my inability to grapple with the terms of the form. But film was the medium du jour and most publications were interested in it. I was also determined to avoid the economic and political analyses that had marked me as an activism-oriented campus journalist, so my shift to cultural writing included a few more movie reviews. As you can imagine, the local critics group (Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, or Filipino Film Critics Circle) had to downgrade their definition of “critic” to include reviewers, or else they’d have comprised only two members (Pete Daroy and Bien Lumbera) and maybe two associates (Doy del Mundo and Nic Tiongson).

I knew I needed a lot of leveling up after interacting with the best film artists of the time, and even more after I joined the Marcos government’s Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. I read up on the standard early-film discourses (Arnheim, Balazs, Eisenstein, Bazin, etc.) plus active practitioners, with emphasis on stylists like [Pauline] Kael and the Philippines’s Nestor Torre (his early years). Kael was occasionally wrong and sometimes terribly so, but I was fascinated by how she could figure her way into sounding just right – a skill I might need in case I’d do regular reviewing. For some reason many prominent local critics of the time preferred John Simon, who to me was too willing to sacrifice insight for the sake of displaying wit and erudition.

During the late years of the Marcos regime, the University of the Philippines introduced the first undergrad film program in the country, and since I’d completed a bachelor’s in journalism at the Institute (now College) of Mass Comm, the ECP designated me to take the major courses so that the agency could eventually offer its own film courses. I said that if I took the equivalent of an extra sem, I could complete a second degree, so in effect I became an ECP scholar, required to complete the courses plus an occasional public-relations piece for the agency. The Marcoses were ousted, ECP was dissolved, and I had a film degree that no one else shared since it took the other majors much longer to complete the program. I tried industry work but got delegated to entry-level production-assistant tasks at starvation wages, then I retried journalism and TV scriptwriting – but all these jobs disappeared as media workers were unionizing for the first time and the panicked owners figured that shutting down their companies (and reopening them under different names) was the easiest solution.

The dean of UP mass comm bumped into me and said that, since I was the program’s first and only grad, I should teach film. Ellen J. Paglinauan, who adjusted her Fulbright program from geography to film, had just returned from the US and became my colleague and mentor. She knew my up-or-out deadline was approaching and that I could better serve the faculty with a film degree, so she helped me work out a Fulbright application. The politicking on the Philippine end was terrible, but fortunately the Institute of International Education “corrected” the Philippine-American Educational Foundation’s list of recommendees and repositioned the education minister’s daughter from first to somewhere near last, and (according to Ellen) ranked me on top. That was why no amount of pleading from PAEF could convince me to settle for any of the less-expensive choices. It was NYU or bust, although that also amounted to hubris on my end. The Fulbright was for a master’s degree; when NYU accepted me to the doctoral program, I could only apply for another US government grant (like another Fulbright) if I resided outside the US for two years.

UP was interested in getting a Ph.D. holder for the film program and told me to find work and apply for student loans. I managed both and intended to pay off all my loans once I reached a managerial level at the economic-database company that hired me, but I could only manage to reduce my loan amount by half when my residency deadline loomed up. Back in Pinas, UP could not provide me with the means to repay my loans either; my mother sold some property to settle my account, with the understanding that I should repay her instead. That’s how I took the first offer to teach in Korea, on exchange; upon returning to UP, my salary was withheld for some mix-up that I had nothing to do with, so I sent out an SOS to friends in Korea – which is how I found the university where I’m currently working.

Re the website: this was also part of another slow process of realization. The Korean university announced that a personal website was part of its tenure requirements, so I read up on blogging, observed some dynamics (useful also for teaching cyberculture classes), and launched the website…by which time it was no longer a university requirement. But then in seeking out ISI-listed publications to fulfill the bulk of the university’s tenure specs, I stumbled on Ateneo de Manila University’s Kritika Kultura, which was open-access, an obvious ideal combination of prestige and availability on the level of profit-oriented academe that had somehow never occurred to me before. Researchers were asking for copies of my out-of-print books, so I arranged with certain publishers to work out new and expanded editions – but publishing, like all the other predigital media forms, was no longer as vibrant as it used to be. I was fascinated enough with so-called film piracy via the Quiapo Cinematheque (with Laikwan Pang’s studies as guidepost), and also became familiar with the work of Jojo Devera and other people invested in reviving and strengthening the public domain.

To me it’s still entirely rational, once we take out the element of finance as the ultimate arbiter of success. Jojo and I have stable jobs that allow us to engage in blogging activities, in which the actual price of (in my case) paying for a domain and WordPress’s custom-design privilege isn’t all that exorbitant. I get to dispense with the guilt of telling researchers that my books can be found in certain hard-to-access libraries, as well as preempt sites like GoogleBooks from monopolizing readers with uploaded versions of my sole-authored books that I’d rather update and revise if I get another chance, which is now. It doesn’t really stop publishers from wanting to have exclusive rights to my future output, and I get to keep myself busy with feeding the machine, with the additional leverage of defying it (by getting my manuscript out on the blog) when it misbehaves.

The Manila by Night monograph and the special Philippine cinema canon volume for YES! Magazine are exceptional cases: I’d accumulated enough material about MbN, from my dissertation preparation onward, so that I was able to edit Kritika Kultura’s first film forum devoted to articles on the movie, and that provided me with the impetus to pique the interest of Arsenal Press’s limited queer-films series; Summit Media (the YES! publisher) saw some mini-reviews (which I collectively titled “Short Takes”) for a personal canon of 100 local film titles that I uploaded on Amauteurish!, and offered to buy the rights to them, upping the fee if I participated as a consultant in their one-shot canon project. Re downloadable copies of my own books, plus more PDFs of other materials – these are all in the future. I imagine I’ll need to spend for and train in page-layout software, so that I might be able to circulate the books better. All in good time, like everything else.

There’s a point, or a line, where I move from surrendering my own copyright to claiming those of others, when I find out-of-print material (usually institutional in nature) where the publisher is difficult to determine and often is already defunct. I know enough to tread carefully here and I generally wait until there’s enough of a social-media interest in an issue relatable to the material.

Maybe I should end here for now. The answers ran (or rambled) on for a while. Hope this can provide enough to help you formulate questions. Best regards.

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Saturday, February 25, 2017, 8:21 AM

Paul
Great thanks Joel. Rambling is great! I’ll get back to you ASAP. Salamat.

Monday, February 27, 2017, 9:53 PM

Paul
Wow this is really rich, is it all right if I just go back for a second, concerning your publishing history. So for instance you mention your dissertation (BTW who was your adviser?), was this not among your early publication efforts? If my chronology is correct you had already published The National Pastime before going to the States. Then in Wages [of Cinema] and Fields [of Vision] it feels like the tone of the writing changes and becomes much more contemporaneous with the kind of poststructural film writing that was such a mainstay in Anglophone film studies. Is it fair to say that you were the first to really bring that approach to film writing in the Philippines?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017, 4:25 AM

Joel
I’ll need another day to answer, Paul, if you don’t mind.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017, 6:49 AM

Paul
Of course! No worries, and thanks again for what you’ve sent already. I’ll back off shortly.

Thursday, March 2, 2017, 4:42 PM

Joel [from text-file attachment]

Sorry for the delay in writing out my response. My diss adviser was the late Bob Sklar, and Bob Stam, Toby Miller, and Ellen Paglinauan were on the panel. I managed to spin off some chapters into journal papers, and even read books on revising theses for book publication, but I never had the time to work on that project. I was hoping this second half-sabbatical I was granted [for spring 2017] could provide me with the time to devote to that. Then I realized I’ll have to overhaul, rather than revise, some chapters, so I thought of writing them out as papers first. Looks like it will take longer than I would have preferred.

National Pastime and the second book, Fields of Vision, were meant to be just one book, an anthology of film journalism (articles and reviews) in two manuscript volumes. I tried to interest some university presses in it but they all gave two-year (or longer) timelines, so I went to Anvil. They said they could produce it in three months, which was just right for me, but I later realized it was too fast. They wanted only half of the manuscript I submitted, plus pictures (when I preferred to have none), and a glossary of film terms. A layperson editor took charge and insisted on an approach that could be summed up as “if it’s about movies, then I shouldn’t have to put in too much work to understand it.” I thought that was fair to a certain extent, but I also realized that it meant that an opportunity for casual readers to learn something new (by meeting the author half-way) was being discarded. That’s the reason why the glossary I was forced to write contained some sarcastic passages.

The remaining articles from the original volume would be my second book, I thought, and I brought the MS to the Ateneo Press just because Prof Esther Pacheco told me they wanted to handle my next title. But when I compiled the MS, I realized Fields of Vision would just be echoing National Pastime, so I held off until I was able to do some “academic” (mostly quantitative and canonical) exercises, with the rationale that all of the available local samples were too deeply flawed to be taken seriously. The third book, Wages of Cinema, was meant to be strictly a personal middle stage between completing my graduate requirements and starting work on my diss. I mentioned to Prof Laura Samson, then the director of the University of the Philippines Press, that I had performed this strategy of gathering my (necessarily not ready for primetime) material so I could find a workable direction for my final project, and she asked to take a look at the manuscript. In a few days she said she wanted to publish it as a book so could I grant her permission to do so. I thought fine, at least I’ll have some feedback [from readers] on how to improve the material even if in the end I wind up pulling it out of the publication process for being too callow, but apparently the readers signed off on it without any major changes.

So the approach you mentioned was deliberate in the sense that I looked for ways beyond repeating each previous book’s approaches, but it was also accidental in that I would have been more cautious about getting the stuff out if I had a name to uphold by then. People immediately told me about some progression they noticed – from classical to structuralist to poststruct – so I incorporated that insight in the back-cover text of the last book, but it wasn’t something that needed to be done if anyone had asked me. Each book generated some negative comments but I only answered the one (re Fields of Vision) that complained that the text required readers to do some work on their own. The fourth “book,” Millennial Traversals, was essentially a digital-edition mop-up operation, where I compiled everything else I’d written on film and media up to 2016, so that anything by me could be accessed in book form. Like I might have mentioned to you before, I’m hoping to get all the digital editions of my books in e-publication formats so that they could be downloaded and printed or read at the reader’s convenience. When I’ll manage to do that is the question.

Answers to your 2nd batch of questions, sir.

Paul
Great, thanks, Joel. Hopefully I can leave you alone after this.

Joel
No prob if you have further queries, Paul.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017, 9:39 PM

Paul
Hi Joel, quick question. What was your dissertation? That was quite sad about Sklar, he taught my diss prop seminar. What a tragic end.

Also, when did you put up the site, i.e. what year? Thanks Joel.

Thursday, March 9, 2017, 1:31 AM

Joel
Re the website first: the 2014 record states that it went “live” on June 13, but that I was adding features since March of that year. But since it was originally part of the list of tenure requirements, I remember setting up another website, with a Korean webmaster, in 2009. I forget its name now (its URL was [joeldavid-dot-net], but I’m not so sure about this either), and I remember updating it (via the webmaster) five or six times. I realized that if I were to have my own website, the best arrangement would be to have as much control over it as possible – which is why I undertook some quick research on blogs and observed the more active ones (especially Michael Musto’s La Dolce Musto, when he was still with Village Voice). As I must have written to you earlier, these activities became part of my preparations for teaching the Cyberculture undergrad class, and later the Digital Humanities grad class, at Inha University. I must have opened a WordPress account in 2011 or 2012, since I kept tinkering with blog templates and formats for a while before I launched the website. I decided to make it archival in nature, after I saw all the trolling and spamming that went on in the blogs that weren’t moderated by their owners, and the badmouthing and resentment that went on when the blogs were moderated. Since anything archival would be less topical than ordinary web logging, it would justify my refusal to entertain any type of commentary and help me avoid this no-win situation. In late 2013 I also concluded that the free WordPress services would yield a stale-looking design. I subscribed to the most basic among their several paid features, and immediately the improvement in appearance was satisfactory enough, so I kept this arrangement. I also wanted a showy, trashy, corny, pretentiously funny name, but the best I could do was settle for a mash-up between “amateur” and “auteur” – amauteurish.

The dissertation was titled “Primates in Paradise: The Multiple-Character Format in Philippine Film Practice” – which is undergoing a really long process of revision, as I must have told you earlier. I don’t want to rush it at all, since it’s got a core that’s worth refining as carefully and ambitiously as possible. I’d cannibalized some chapters for journal articles that I’ve published, as a way of undertaking the revisions. Some books and several articles (including in the New York Times) have already come out on multicharacter movies, which is fine, since the phenomenon is fairly new in the US, with Robert Altman as its pioneer. Since one of my bachelor’s degrees was in journalism, I know enough about the relative worth of the scoop (or being the first to report on something significant) vis-à-vis the interpretive or feature article: it’s extremely rare for both to be the same, and between being first to report and coming up with the best article on the same topic, I’d rather leave the privilege of being first to others. That’s the reason why one of the people I was mentoring described me as “bukas-palad” or open-palmed, meaning that I didn’t mind cluing in people to useful bits of info, even exclusive ones. For me, the real competition lies in how well anyone reads any material. If you’re chronologically last and no one else follows, the careless smart-ass observers would focus on the fact that you were last; but the real implication is that you were definitive, since no one could add anything after you came along. Di ba?

Wednesday, Apr 12, 2017, 2:26 AM

Paul
Hi Joel, quick question (and I see I never thanked you for the last response! Thank you!). You mention that “Jojo and I have stable jobs that allow us to engage in blogging activities” – who is the Jojo you are referring to? Almost done with this thing, and I added a few transition phrases just to organize the flow of the text, I hope that’s OK with you. I have to make it look like I did some work.

Joel
Re organizing, structuring, and correcting interview material – that’s part of the magic, as we know as students of film. The Jojo I’m referring to is Jojo Devera, who runs the [now defunct] Magsine Tayo! blog. I don’t know if I’m repeating info I already gave you, and sorry if I do, but Jojo’s an avid collector of Pinoy movies, sometimes with titles that can’t be found anywhere else. Unlike the typical archivist-hoarder, he makes an effort to remaster what he has and post the results on his blog for free. It tends to alarm still-active producers and distributors, although he recently found his own ways around the problem of having to take down the movies that producers don’t want to make readily available. First, he gets the approval of the filmmaker, or maybe another producer also involved in the production in question. Next, and worst comes to worst, he had a lawyer advise him that film owners can only claim overseas copyright if they’re listed as foreign distributors of their films. Nevertheless he still concedes to producers’ claims just to be able to avoid too much fuss. In the past, they were able to petition YouTube to shut down his website. In the last few months, he migrated all his film uploads to Vimeo, which (according to him) has better terms for uploaders. His troubles are reminiscent of the Quiapo Cinematheque controversy, when “legit” DVD distributors (with the encouragement of Imelda [Marcos]’s pal, Jack Valenti), insisted on outlawing videocopies that sold for Php 20 so that people could be forced to buy their stuff that would cost Php 1,000 or higher. The producers aren’t really overcharging the public this time, although Mike de Leon supposedly priced his 3rd World Hero at Php 3,000 per copy (I bought Marie Jamora’s director’s cut of The Missing at Php 2,000 and it was worth it). But the legit copies are just too hard to find, and besides, Jojo’s material comes from older videos or TV broadcasts, sometimes censored or shortened for airtime. So a number of film researchers (JB Capino’s the most vocal one) have come to Jojo’s defense; I’ve been acknowledging his help in several of my research projects, since if he’s got a rare copy of anything, he won’t hesitate to share it with you.

Paul
Wow thank you Joel, this is all new to me, i.e. no repetition. Thanks so much.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017, 9:45 AM

Paul
Hi Joel, it’s me again…. Can I just check with you about a couple of publications that you might have written for? Sagisag magazine, Midweek magazine, Diliman Review, and Humanities Diliman. Were these important for you?

Joel
Not Sagisag. It folded up before I started freelancing after I was graduated in journalism. Not Humanities Diliman either – one of my submissions languished too long with them so I pulled it out. (Unless they printed it without my knowledge and skipped the peer-review process.) Diliman Review – I only remember getting published there once, although the office was my favorite hangout whenever I revisited the campus. Some members of the staff were also with the Literary Apprentice, so I submitted a piece to them as well. National Midweek was where I published regularly for almost its whole period of existence. I was with another periodical when I started, so I used a pen name. The former chair of the critics group I drifted away from wanted to invite me to join them, but he had a good laugh when he found out it was just me. Most of my writing for Midweek was subsidized in effect by my teaching at UP – Midweek rates were next to nothing, but you could barely survive as a UP instructor either. I just learned to live on a tight budget, a skills set that was useful for living, studying, and working in NYC later. Today it’s still the same. All the writing I do, including maintaining my blog, is subsidized by my teaching. But the difference between the Philippines’s national university and a second-rank school outside of the capital city in Korea is tremendous. You get the impression that [in Korea] you could live strictly as a scholar and the institution will cover your needs as a matter of course – no need to beg for anything.

Paul
Oh man that’s enviable. I keep trying to imagine what it will be like to go back to the States and work as an adjunct at five or six different universities just to make ends meet. Here I can get by, but it’s not sustainable. Anyway, what was your pen name at Midweek, does any of it appear online?

Joel
Re the Diliman Review connection – when its editor, Bien Lumbera, started a journal at the Cultural Center of the Philippines titled Kultura, he encouraged me to provide them with critical material (including lengthy reviews). That’s where my Second Golden Age article originally came out. My Midweek pen name was Jojo Legaspi. My entire Midweek output has its own listing on my blog. I mention the pen names I used in a still-to-be-updated “How to Use the Blog” page. I don’t really remember my underground aliases in the student movement, or kept copies of what I wrote then. It’s amazing how [the late National Democratic Front chair] Tony Zumel had his whole collection of UG writings printed in book form, but they’re of a highly specific genre (agitprop we used to call it, or agitational propaganda). I don’t think I’ll want to be remembered for the literary accomplishments of that type of writing. You lived and studied in NYC too, right? Everyone who does that goes through a specific (and special, but we don’t want to self-aggrandize no?) experience that non-NYers will never understand, or will probably perceive as a type of neurosis.

Paul
Wow great! Personally I’d love to see those writings from the underground. Yes I lived in NY for a big part of my life and definitely had periods where I had to struggle for work there. Can’t imagine now what it’s like to be an academic there!

Joel
Couldn’t be caught with keeping [the agitprop material], Paul. It would be like admitting I wrote them, which would have been true. But I also made sure to use a “dead” journalistic style so I could deny authorship. To be honest, the writing [I did there] dismayed me, but that’s probably why I never got suspected of being a UG contributor. At NYU I roomed with Bliss Lim, who was a former student of mine and a published poet. We realized we’d be writing scholarly material for a long time, so we had some intensive discussions on writing style. Mainly how the “flat” approach that our teachers prescribed in order to foreground content was as much a myth as objectivity in journalism. We hoped to reach a point where we could come up with a better formula, but that would have been impossible. It was enough to just know where the seams were. In fact I think Bliss found a great way to use poetic devices in her scholarly work. I’m more prosaic like everyone else, so in theory a lot more technique is available to us, but there’s always the danger of falling back on the ones that we’re already able to handle well. It’s strange how an obsession with style was palpable among writers in English during the time we were in college. Probably because of the awareness that you could be suspected of succumbing to colonial mentality. That’s also probably why a lot of local writers in English are stylists, in addition to whatever their area of specialization happens to be.

Á!

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