Tag Archives: Commentaries

Book Texts – Levels of Independence

LEVELS OF INDEPENDENCE

The current catchword in film circles is independence, and it’s a measure of how far film awareness has progressed when the sector laying claim to the term intends it to refer to a format-based difference vis-à-vis commercial-gauge products. But first a few technical clarifications. The fact that [circa 1990] film exists in varying formats, measured in widths, is ascribed to the practicality of various industry-based purposes: super-8mm., an improvement over 16mm.-halved 8mm., was home-movie stock until video became far more economical; 16mm. serves specialized industrial purposes, mainly advertising; 35mm. is for what may be called mainstream production, normally national but preferably international in scope of distribution; outside the country lies the possibility of 35mm.-anamorphic projection (which expands to twice the image width with the use of the proper lens) plus its real-thing equivalent, 70mm. wide-screen, for roadshow presentations.

Such a convenient availability for most conceivable filmic requirements belies the historical origins of the medium. Film formats differed not because usages varied, but because every investor who had the money and foresight was racing to get his standard – which may have been the first clear instance of the desperate competition that the medium has been exhibiting since, without letup, this first century of its existence. One way of providing some value to the numbers is by scaling them from least to most, and assigning some factors that observe the same principle of ascension or descension. Super-8mm., 8mm. and 16mm. provide maximum individual freedom at minimum cost, while 35mm. and 70mm. provide maximum profitability and audience exposure.

From the extremes it becomes immediately clear that both sides could formulate claims to the ideals of independence, presuming that such an ideal matters in this sort of undertaking. A practitioner in super 8mm., or even video (a non-filmic medium which could accommodate certain basic principles anyway), could point to the minimalization of authorship problems on the basis of the fewer workforce requirements of such a format; on the other hand, a mainstream person could counter that the essence of freedom is material-based, and so only those with sufficient financial, industrial, distributional, and popular support could achieve social change – which, after all, is (or should be) the goal of independence.

Proponents of 16mm., including film-educational institutions, have come up with their rationalization for its increased usage: assuming that both sides of the extremes’ arguments are valid but not necessarily conflicting, 16mm. offers a resemblance to mainstream technology at considerably affordable cost; though several times more expensive than super-8, it also happened to be more accessible in this country since 1985, when Kodak Philippines phased out local Super-8 processing.

Within mainstream practice, however, the issue of independence also assumes as many possible claims as there are self-conscious institutions. “Independence” actually originally referred to the production outfits that were relegated to the fringes during the post-war heyday of the studio system up to the early 1960s; once the majors were weakened by internal problems (talents’ dissatisfaction leading to labor problems) and external pressures (busting of production-and-distribution monopolies), the so-called independents closed in and instituted a system, if the word could still apply, of free-for-all enterprise. A subsystem of outfits based on stars, who were eventually distinguished from the rest of the constellation by the term superstars, has proved more enduring – and in fact constitutes what we can consider the mainstream independents of today.

Of course, the big three – Regal, Viva, and Seiko – in our current studio-dominated system all started out as independents relative to now inactive or defunct production houses. As mentioned earlier, any of these giants could claim, if they had a mind to do so, to being the true exponent of independent cinema in the country: all they have to do is admit that they don’t care to exercise this prerogative at the moment, and offer a genuine industry break to anyone who’d challenge their stature. The mad scramble for assignments in itself could serve as proof of the dissenters’ double-minded acknowledgment that, yes, enslavement to filthy lucre does liberate one from the poverty of cheap formats.

Meanwhile, there are the past and future processes of mainstream independence to contend with. Until as late as the early 1980s certain filmmakers could break free of, well, the Filipino language at least, by doing regional cinema in the Cebuano or, though rarely, Ilocano tongue. The system of distribution – outside the Tagalog region (and the attendant demands of Metro Manila moviegoers) – also enabled drastic reductions in budget costs and the use of non-stars: the profitability of such an option is still being realized by today’s countryside-circuit penekula or hard-core sex-film investors; in fact, the first color Cebuano film (and one of the last as well) was actually shot in super-8 and blown up, grains and all, to commercial-gauge 35mm., reportedly clobbering Manila and even foreign releases at the box office wherever it was shown. There’s a disturbing analogy somewhere, though, for future film scholars to ponder on: since we could say that regional movies have been replaced by sex films, does this mean that our provincial folk have “progressed” in their preference for spoken language to the inarticulate dictates of the, er, heart?

Finally, the most promising aspect of independence thus far almost became a local tradition were it not for the reckless conduct of an international film festival by the previous regime during the early 1980s. Exhibition in foreign film circuits proved favorable for Filipino directors fortunate enough to have been invited by patrons, but the problem is actually greater than the sanguinity of local producers in the sufficiency of the local film makers: Filipino authorities are pathetically simple-minded about the prospects of exporting our most impressive cultural body of work, preferring to dwell on the implications for the national image, as if that were all that the medium is good for.

The opening up of international film opportunities (confirmed by a corresponding ferment in film-theory circles) to Third-World cinema might find the Philippines typically left behind in an endeavor where we were in a sense pioneers – cf. our participation in foreign festivals during the 1950s. It’s a good thing that certain individual practitioners have gone as far as preempting both local producers and officials, notably the censors, in getting their dream projects produced not by themselves or by fellow Filipinos, but the foreign entities who’d have better access to worldwide distribution.

Such a notion of relying on foreigners for institutional support is, of course, profoundly antithetical to the concept of independence in the political scheme of things – which only goes to prove that the ideal of film may be more than merely material, or even political. In Japan, the world’s most economically independent nation, the best directors (Akira Kurosawa and Shohei Imamura, among recent examples) look toward non-Japanese investors for aesthetic salvation. Tokyo also happens to be the closest capital where we can get super-8mm. films processed. Something like having one’s sushi and sashimi, too.

[First published April 25, 1990, in National Midweek]

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Book Texts – Culture at Large

A NEW ROLE FOR KOREA

The forthcoming ASEAN-Korea Commemorative Summit will have been preceded by a related event, fraught with symbolic implications: the sixtieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and the Philippines (celebration ceremonies had to be postponed due to the period of mourning for the late President Roh Moo-hyun). Both countries underwent traumatic parallel upheavals in their encounter with modernization during the last century. In fact, the link between Korea and the Philippines may be traced to as far back as over an entire century, when the U.S. and Japan executed the secret diplomatic document now known as the 1905 Taft-Katsura Memorandum, a sort of gentleman’s agreement between colonizers to divide up the major Far Eastern territories between themselves – Korea for Japan and the Philippines for the U.S. For this reason I will focus initially on comparing and contrasting the two countries, before discussing Korea in relation to the larger ASEAN region.

Otherwise well-informed professors in the Philippines react with surprise when I tell them about the Taft-Katsura manuscript, about whose existence I’d learned in an English-language translation of a Korean high-school history textbook. The first half of the twentieth century resulted in divergent colonial experiences for both countries, with Korea opposing the Japanese occupation to the extent of forming an overseas exile government, and the Philippines growing loyal enough to fight alongside the Americans against the Japanese during World War II. The convergence of Korean and Philippine interests (pro-U.S., anti-Japan and later anti-Communist) continued through the Korean War, when the Philippines sent the biggest Asian delegation in support of South Korean combatants. Nationalists on both sides also expressed dismay that the conflicts were essentially proxy wars fought by the U.S. against its imperialist rivals, leaving the battleground territories (Manila in World War II, Seoul in the Korean War) utterly devastated, and with both Asian countries persuaded to subsequently assist the U.S. against the eventually victorious Vietnamese during a longer-drawn-out conflict.

Up to this point, the Philippines generally fared better. The country had a head-start in economic recovery and lucked out initially in its post-war import-substitution industrialization strategy. Its status as a long-Westernized, recently Americanized capital made it an attractive destination for other Asian citizens, so when it embarked on the U.S.-supported authoritarianist experiment that many other Third-World countries were pursuing, logic dictated that it would continue to lead the rest of Asia in finally attaining industrial development. (As partners in the regional strong-men club, Park Chung-hee and Ferdinand Marcos were able to meet up in Manila during an earlier version of the ASEAN, the 1966 conference of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.)

The end of the periods of dictatorship all over Asia proved to be generally beneficial for their respective countries’ economies – with the egregious and embarrassing exception of the Philippines (once described as a “banana republic” by the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman). While Filipino experts tried to figure out what went wrong and how the Marcos era’s mistakes may be avoided in future, Korea made itself over into the most impressive economy in the region, next to Japan. In fact, from the point of view of other Asian countries outside East Asia, Korea’s example is not merely worthy of emulation; it is a moral triumph. For while Japan may have had a longer run and a still-larger annual income, Korea, like the rest of the ASEAN countries, had been and has remained resolutely postcolonial: at any point in its drive toward modernization, its wealth was never achieved at any other country’s expense, and if any people had to endure suffering, it was always first and foremost its own population.

This is the (admittedly simplistic, probably reductive, and strictly tentative) logic that I use in explaining why Korea holds such a strong fascination in the imaginaries of the other ASEAN member-countries. A few observers might want to believe that the Korean pop-culture wave might be over, or that it might not even have existed at all. Yet the record of, say, Korean TV dramas dominating the ratings of Southeast Asian media since the start of the current millennium speaks for itself. A Korean performer, virtually unknown hereabouts, has leading-lady status in Philippine movies, and the latter country acknowledged last year that the number of Korean visitors has now exceeded those of all other countries in the world, displacing the previous and long-time record-holders, the Japanese.

One way of illustrating how the exceptionally high regard for things Korean persists in the ASEAN region is by contemplating an alternative situation. If another major East Asian country were to initiate its counterpart of the Korean pop-culture wave, most Southeast Asian countries would likely respond with some degree of hesitation, if not outright coolness. For better or worse, the Chinese have been marked with an overriding (though much-envied) profit motive, while the Japanese’s espionage activities prior to their World War II imperialist expansion cannot be easily expunged from the other countries’ historical memories. This partly explains why most successful Chinese or Japanese cultural products circulate in the region through Western distribution circuits.

Hence among the “senior” non-ASEAN Asian economies, Korea may well be the country that is in a position to assume an influential role in the region. Why then has its leadership function remained largely theoretical, a kind of guidance by example, when the other East Asian countries have been more or less actively staking their claims to representing the rest of Asia? There are two interlocking ways of answering this question, one internal (to Korea) and the other external, which I will attempt first. From the perspective of the ASEAN members, the organization has been doing well enough without any form of outside interference. A cultural historian might be able to argue that, were it not for the intervention of European colonization, the region could constitute an entire super-nation or subcontinent (comprising a seemingly endless array of cultures and peoples and languages) unto itself. In a sense, ASEAN fulfills this might-have-been vision through an ideal of cooperative self-sufficiency.

Korea, for its part, has always had the historical propensity to turn inward. Its comfort zone as a nation remained within its boundaries, among its people, hermitic (to use its self-descriptor) to a fault. By now its leading lights might have figured that such a response could prove debilitating in an age of globalization, just as it had proved disastrous during preceding eras of colonizations and proxy wars. Moreover, a genuine internal consolidation will be impossible for a long while, at least while the northern half of the country remains ideologically estranged and materially impoverished. Meanwhile, the Southeast Asian region remains for the most part organized, appreciative, determined to succeed on terms that do not seem all that different from what the people of this country had been able to achieve not too long ago. Spring is in the air. A period of mutual courtship is long overdue.

[First published June 2, 2009, in Korea Times]

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Crescent Tense

One subjective measure of the distress over the recent killings in Mindanao’s Maguindanao province (also called the Ampatuan massacre) is how Philippine-based foreigners, including the few Koreans I advise mainly for their thesis completion, seem as traumatized as the Pinoy bourgeoisie, in stark contrast with the rest of the natives. This is not to say that the working-class majority feels unaffected by the tragedy. In fact the oft-noted peculiarity of the local response to crises – marked by the incongruent use of humor, or in this case silence – can be read as a form of fatalistic acceptance of the brutalities of fate, as well as a means by which the individual could refocus her or his attention on the exigencies of personal survival.

I must confess that I encourage my Korean advisees to indulge in something approaching xenophobic paranoia. Most Koreans who visit the Philippines are impressed by the local culture’s excessive libertarianism, a welcome relief from the severe patriarchal hierarchisms that invariably confront most East Asians from birth onward. Yet the country’s seemingly boundless promiscuity misleads foreigners into thinking that its culture is as benevolent as it is tolerant.

More than once some of my Manila-based colleagues had informed me that one or another of my male Korean students had set out, usually alone, for some unannounced inter-island itinerary, with the person’s mobile phone occasionally losing signal due to the underdeveloped condition of some far-flung destination. So far the guys have returned safely, convinced all the more of the kindness of the “other” Filipinos vis-à-vis the relatively cynical and materialistic Manileños, even as my friends and I wonder how to impress on these wide-eyed innocents the kind of dangers they were lucky to have skirted.

The Maguindanao massacre was not, even in my wildest and weirdest and saddest dreams, the example I had hoped for, but there it is. The widespread response to the event turns on its perpetrators’ bald-faced assumption that they could get away with such an extensive and bloodcurdling criminal operation, directed in open-space broad daylight against a large and influential group comprising mostly women, uninvolved passersby, and (the ultimate indication of contemporary hubris) media professionals. Beyond the jaw-droppingly pathological stupidity of a group of men driven by old-line machismo and power-hungriness, one could somehow sense a shock of recognition, even among Koreans who happen to belong to an old-enough generation.

For this is how people with absolute power (with the concomitant absolute corruption) have always tended to behave, down to the knee-jerk assignation of blame to armed seditionists. Just replace the unsophisticated provincial dynasty with more charming, urbane, and eloquent types and one would have the U.S.-sanctioned Third-World dictatorships that most middle-aged Southeast Asians (and Koreans and Latin Americans) still remember all too vividly.

Which makes the actuations of the Maguindanao-massacre perps as backward as they are barbaric, locked in a period and setting that ought to have been relegated to a permanently passed past. What provides an underlying unease regarding the response of the current Philippine administration is the fact that both sides of the political fence, the outraged ruling party as well as the infuriated opposition, are calling for immediate and unqualified intervention, thus conjuring up spectacles once more associable with the excesses of the long-deposed Marcos regime: the deployment of Philippine army troops to predominantly, supposedly autonomous Muslim areas, with hasty arrests of elements perceived as rebellious, and everything conveniently blanketed by the imposition (since lifted) of martial law, possibly as prelude to a transition of power to a bereaved rival who, it must be stressed, mirrors his opponents’ penchant for maintaining a militia force.

How the Philippines’ second largest (and richest, resources-wise) island ever reached such a sorry state of affairs, with the Maguindanao case a culmination of a long and so-far unending series of tragic events, can be best understood via a sufficiently distant geopolitical perspective. From, say, an orbiting satellite’s view, what may be regarded as the Philippines’ Christian majority is actually the Indo-Malayan archipelago’s regional minority, disproportionately empowered by the historical accident of the U.S.’s current undisputed status as global police.

After largely successfully resisting foreign attempts at colonization, the Philippines’ Muslim population found itself at the receiving end of a series of ill-advised political trade-offs initiated by the American reoccupation of the country after World War II. First, the U.S. reneged on its promise of benefits to the local Communist army after contracting it to undertake the bulk of anti-Japanese resistance. The peasant-based insurgency that ensued from this instance of Cold War-era duplicity suffered severe repression, and the then-fledgling Philippine administration sought to mollify increasing antipathy by providing ex-rebels with settlements in Mindanao, many of which were located in still-undocumented Muslim ancestral properties.

The disgruntlement that percolated under the social surface finally erupted with the Marcos government’s decision to infiltrate, destabilize, and reclaim Sabah in Malaysia using a commando unit (code-named Jabidah) of Filipino Muslims, trained on a ship without being informed of the nature of their mission. Upon learning what they were expected to carry out, the young men attempted to mutiny and were summarily executed (in a scenario reminiscent of then-concurrent events in Korea depicted in Kang Woo-suk’s 2003 blockbuster Silmido). Having since been radicalized by the Jabidah massacre, several generations of separatist Muslims experienced some of the most harrowing peace-time assaults by Philippine armed forces, punctuated by a few truce periods.

The U.S.’s so-called war on terror did not ease matters for the severely put-upon Pinoy Islamic populace. In the current millennium, a few individuals attempted to meet half-way the globalist call for entrepreneurship by supplying, to an extremely responsive and grateful nationwide market, affordable copies of otherwise unfairly priced digital content; instead they were continually hounded and accused of more than just video piracy by the Motion Pictures Association of America, whose leader, the late Jack Valenti, claimed (but never proved) before the U.S. Senate, as a way to justify harsher measures, that the profits made by “pirates” were donated to terrorist organizations.

Where the recent return of the Philippine army to Muslim areas in Mindanao might lead this time is anyone’s guess, but if history were to serve as indicator, what may appear to be a solution at present might only lead to further heartbreak in future.

[First published December 14, 2009, as “Heartbreak in Mindanao”]

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Asian Casanovas

When the only serious contenders during the last US presidential election were a woman and a black man, most commentators wondered which category, gender or race, would prove worthier of the patronage of the electorate. As it turned out, voters felt more confident about being led by a black man, although in a show of buyer’s remorse typical of history’s most successful consumer society, some Americans nowadays tend to write how Hillary Clinton would have had the leadership qualities that Barack Obama, for all his Kennedyesque charisma, sadly lacks in a time of serious global crises.

Yet the bigger picture has largely been overlooked. The standard presidential qualities of maleness, whiteness, wealth, and old age have become more and more difficult to assert, due to the rise of identity politics during the only truly progressive revolution the US ever came close to, comprising the various cultural upheavals of the 1960s. After the election of the non-WASP John F. Kennedy ushered in the Camelot spirit, the old boys’ club managed to hold on for a few more decades afterward, although it became increasingly apparent that successful candidates could, and then should, be sold on the basis of their deviation from the norm: Jimmy Carter had been a peanut farmer, Ronald Reagan a B-movie actor, Bill Clinton an impoverished native son who could complete his education only through scholarship grants. In this context, even “Dubya” Bush connected with voters despite his monstrous incompetence precisely because he was an aw-shucks underachieving everyday guy, in dull contrast with his father, the US’s (and by extension the world’s) last patriarchal President.

The foregrounding of the formerly immovable categories of race and gender during last year’s election recalls another category, one where both qualities reside, and which (officially, at least) supposedly no longer exists: that of Orientalism. Ever since Edward Said published his eponymous study, Orientalism (or, more accurately, anti-Orientalism) became an area of scholarly pursuit, first within comparative race studies, where Said had originally located his ideas. Not long after, feminist scholars joined the growing body of work critiquing Orientalism, but in fact improved on Said’s framework by incorporating the issue of desire.

In other words, where Said pointed out instances in Western literature where the Oriental was presented as inferior to the Western subject, more recent studies of Orientalism, focusing mainly on popular culture, acknowledge that racial bias (expressed via Christianity-inspired moral chauvinism) had a tense and often conflicting relationship with desire, often by the West for the Other. For all its potentially contentious, controversial, even occasionally pornographic implications, this view helped explain several phenomena, including the feminizing attitudes Western nations and peoples had toward Orientals, as well as the West’s comparatively less destructive colonization projects, rather than the outright enslavement or extermination wrought on populations that early conquistadores regarded as subhuman.

In order to see just how far Orientalism might have transformed, I have been casually following the still-unfolding sagas of three celebrities, all males in their 30s, more or less Asian, and beset by women trouble. Tiger Woods, who describes himself as “Cablinasian” (Caucasian, black, [American] Indian, Asian), is actually more Asian than any of his other racial designations, but like Obama, exhibits the more genetically dominant African skin color. Pinoy boxer Manny Pacquiao is the more “native” Asian sportsman, a multiple-division champ, while Lee Byung-hun, as close to the stereotypical Oriental as any East Asian can get, is a Korean actor who has appeared in local and global blockbusters. One can “rank” them, as I had just listed them, in terms of increasing “Asianness,” but the way that twinned conditions occur among them is even more fascinating: Pacquiao and Lee are more racially Asian, Woods and Lee have middle-class backgrounds, and Woods and Pacquiao are already-legendary title holders in the traditionally masculinist profession of sports.

If we proceed from the feminization of Orientals by the self-masculinizing West, then Woods would be the person least subject to this outlook, mainly due to his most-mixed and consequently least-Asian ancestry. Ironically he has been the one so far whose stature has regressed the most, largely because of his incursion in a field, professional golf, which had been the bulwark of a type that would have once included former US Presidents. The outing, so to speak, of his sex addiction was undertaken by women who were, to put it mildly, unruly and, more significantly, white.

Lee, like Pacquiao and unlike Woods, only has to worry about a single female complainant, non-white at that. Although the specifically Korean offense of honin-bingja-ganeumjoi, or obtaining sex under a false promise of marriage, is no longer in force, it nevertheless points up the disparity between Lee and his way-too-young ex. Lee’s advantage over the other two is that, as an unmarried man, he is still technically free to play the field.

Pacquiao, if we were to take his detractors’ assertion that his philandering is more than just a gimmick intended to drumbeat his and his alleged paramour’s media projects, might not suffer the same extreme fall from grace that Woods did, but nevertheless still has to contend with his status as a family man. Yet he is the one blessed with a partner who has been fully supportive, who holds back her outraged responses whenever he prepares for one of his much-anticipated matches, and displays a warmth and graciousness during her interviews that have disarmed even those who had long gotten over her husband’s mystique.

This is where a further insight into Orientalism makes itself indispensable: within even a Western domestic sphere, where no racial Others might be present, the woman can still be configured as the Oriental of the man. (This is in fact a more optimistic view than Billie Holiday’s remark, famously quoted by John Lennon, that “woman is the nigger of the world.”) In a situation like the Philippines, which has been Orientalized several times over – by multiple colonizations, rapacious rulers, and possibly permanent underdevelopment – it is the country’s women, the close-to-legendary Pinays, who have managed to keep heart and hearth alive, further proof that, as Korea had earlier demonstrated, the most Oriental among us just might persevere in the end.

[First published January 25, 2010, as “A Few Insights into Our Asian Casanovas”]

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The Sins of the Fathers

The recent sensational revelations about ungodly, sometimes literally closeted goings-on in the Catholic hierarchy would not surprise those with a passing familiarity with Philippine colonial history. An early 20th-century report by James A. LeRoy in the Academy of Political Science’s journal listed a litany of excesses, all economic and political in nature, culminating in the charge that the Spanish friars “in general encourage[d] stagnation rather than progress.” By way of explaining such behavior, the author remarked that the majority of religious-order members “seem[ed], from their appearance, manners, and personal habits, to have been recruited from certainly not the best classes of Spain.”

It would be possible to tease out certain strands to explain both the character of religious officials posted to distant colonies, as well as the antipathy of the American observers who provided such condemnatory remarks. On the one hand, it would be next-to-impossible to persuade the most promising administrators, religious or otherwise, to accept an assignment in a destination that would have taken months of travel to reach, and from which a return to Spain, the colonial center, might never materialize. One extreme allegation was that out of desperation, some of the orders would seek potential recruits from the ranks of convicts and use their “conversion” as a means of petitioning for their release and subsequent deployment to Las Islas Filipinas.

I would not wish to cast the first stone, as it were, in maintaining that genuine repentance cannot occur in real life, even outside the pale of the then-raging European Enlightenment. But the actuations of many such shepherds of the flock did turn nothing less than wolf-like once they reached their Oriental destination. The first recorded account of a Philippine lynching, for instance, consisted of a mob of Spanish friars fatally assaulting their very own Governor General, a liberal administrator who had ordered investigations into and arrests of corrupt government officials and their religious defenders.

And as in public comportment, so in private: the climax of one of the multiple narrative strands in José Rizal’s masterly 1887 roman à clef, Noli Me Tangere, consisted of the revelation that the heroine, María Clara, had actually been sired by the hero’s mortal enemy, Father Dámaso; believing that her true love had perished as a falsely accused subversive, María Clara insists on entering the nunnery, only to fall into the waiting clutches of her ardent secret admirer, Father Salvi. The upshot of such common-knowledge instances of devilry among the country’s Holy-Joe imports is that even today, when someone with distinct European features turns up in an impoverished rural area, people simply shrug and say that a foreign priest must have intercepted the person in question’s ancestral line.

Such historical material can, at best, only serve as backdrop for the burgeoning tales about clerical scandals, which have so far been confined to the First World. That they involve this particular Catholic pope, at this particular historical moment, when in fact these stories extend into conditions whenever and wherever patriarchy holds sway (not just the present, and not just in Christendom), bespeaks of interests that had been at play even during the specific period when Spanish rule, epitomized by friar power, was being demonized in the Philippines: then as now, it was the Americans, the incoming colonizers, who took the lead in exposing the abuses of the Church – so just as we may be grateful for the outing of previously suppressed information, we might also do well to wonder who stands to benefit from such exposés in the end.

Joseph Ratzinger’s insistence on ideals that had been bypassed by several centuries of liberalization efforts (the last occurring as recently as the 1960s, during the Second Vatican Council) has led to the ugly quagmire that his dispensation finds itself in. The fact that priests all over the Western sphere believed they could continue to rape and torture minors with impunity is consistent with, not counter to, the position that women have no right to their bodies, queers have no right to happiness, humans (poor ones especially) have no right to reproductive health, and all opposing faiths ought to make way for the “one” “true” church, complete with god’s original (though long-dead) language, Latin. Emblematic of the darkest possible humor, were it not a real-life situation, would be the dozens of deaf children who attempted for decades to communicate their experience of abuse in the hands of an American priest who had meanwhile petitioned for, and received, clemency from the pope.

One more image, drawn from pedophile literature, would be that of hawks preying on hapless chickens. Once more, hard as it may seem, one must first attempt to withhold judgment; so yes, great literature can come out of such disturbing desire (witness Lolita, or Death in Venice), and a number of successful long-term relationships may have started from such distressing origins, if we were to accept some child-bride narratives at face value. However, as admitted atheist columnist Christopher Hitchens pointed out, the very people who represent an institution that upholds the most stringent moral standards (to the point where most of these have in fact already been rendered obsolete by modern history) ought themselves to conform to the most basic requisites of human decency, starting with the injunction to visit no harm, first and foremost, on the innocent and helpless.

In this instance of (pardon the pun) chickens eventually coming home to roost, one might hope, pray even, that Ratzinger and his minions could make the leap, resistant though they may seem to be, straight into the second millennium A.D. For starters: maintain the separation of church and state, accord reproductive health the import that good science has long acknowledged, respect the variegated possibilities of human sexual desire, provide for the ordination of women priests (and eventually a woman and/or non-white pope), and yield criminal transgressions to the jurisdiction of civil authorities. The apices of European classical art, music, architecture, and literature betoken the possibilities of lofty, if not divine, inspiration, but there remains no reason to restore the Roman Empire just to be able to partake of these pleasures.

[First published April 12, 2010]

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Peerless Vampire Killers

Vampariah
Directed & written by Matthew Abaya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Reviewer Reviewed

I responded to a review of my work only once, with decidedly mixed feelings. I would have preferred to keep quiet, as I had earlier, regarding more vicious and unfounded attacks on my work and person. At this point, however, I felt that I could not bypass the opportunity to point out the differences between the reviewer’s expectations and the objectives that should have been readily discernible in the book being reviewed. Unfortunately (probably because of the bad blood I had accumulated from enduring earlier attacks), my response had an unnecessarily sharp edge that I now wish I could have blunted before sending the letter. For this reason I decided to conceal the details of publication, which I am certain the author, a senior colleague, would have preferred as well.[1]

Unfocused View of RP Cinema
[Author anonymized]

Reading Joel David’s Fields of Vision can produce a feeling like that generated by a lively intellectual conversation: the sense of challenge and excitement that comes from an encounter with a fine mind thinking deeply about important matters. One may disagree with some of his opinions and applications, but one can hardly avoid being stimulated by the scope of David’s scholarship and reasoning.

This book is a learned and provocative work, precisely because it raises so many questions that get at the heart of the challenges on the study of Philippine cinema. That it does not answer all the questions it raises is far less important than that it calls the reader into the conversation on different terms.

The book is neatly divided into three parts: Panorama, Viewpoints, and Perspectives. Part I is an overview of the New Cinema in retrospect, tracing the effects and influences of neorealism, cinéma vérité, film noir, and surrealism on Philippine cinema. This chapter is the most informative and a welcome contribution by the scholarly author to our deeper understanding of our own local cinema.

The big problem I encountered not only in this chapter but throughout the book is, David’s train of thought is something difficult to follow because of his peculiar style of writing and his penchant for unfamiliar words and ambiguous phrases, such as “imbricated” (ix), “multiplicity of participations” (3), “high-gear editing” (40), “shimmying exoticism” (13), “overscaled meddling” (108).

Part II contains the main body of the book. It is divided into sections with some titillating subtitles: “Demachofication,” “Sequacious Cebuano,” “Movable Fists,” “Mudslung.” Under each heading are listed the movies under consideration.

This chapter, though, creates some problem for the readers who are not familiar with the movies of the 1970s and ’80s. For instance, how could the reader understand what the author is talking about a certain a movie, if he does not know anything about the movie?

Take this example: “Nevertheless the device in Hot Summer has been wisely confined to the movie’s expository portion. Once the entire framework has been set up, the finishing touches admirably point up to a sound internal logic at work, employing the same principle of sensible character-based development observed in Paano Kung Wala Ka Na” (53).

I myself have not seen either Hot Summer or Paano Kung Wala Ka Na. An example of a scene or scenes from either or both of the movies cited would enable the reader to understand and appreciate what David is trying to say.

David could have given an excerpt from the movie Biktima to illustrate what he calls “an excessive cocksureness of approach” (95), which he averred victimized that movie.

For me, the best part of the book is Part III, where David proposed a list of Filipino film highlights (“Worth the While”) to prove that film as a medium still contains the country’s most consistent artistic achievements.

Noteworthy also is “Ten Best Filipino Films Up to 1990,” a credible selection of the ten best collated from the individual choices of more than thirty respectable film artists, film critics, directors, producers, and academicians.

The Ten Best list is sure to generate controversy. David himself, after collating and tabulating everything, concluded that the number of respondents was still not exhaustive, that there is still a critical community somewhere left untapped. But the list should be regarded as the beginning of a healthy debate, rather than the final word on the matter.

Taken as a whole, the book is a gold mine for which film students and film buffs can only be grateful. What the book perhaps lacks in focus is amply compensated by a wealth of informative material about Philippine cinema. It will be a most welcome addition to any film library here and abroad.

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Letter to the Editor

[Date & addressee anonymized]
Dear [Editor] –

I received a copy of a review of Fields of Vision in [your publication] through my publisher, but I didn’t have the time to write a response until today’s US holiday, Independence Day, ironically liberated me from my work sked. [The] review was appreciative and encouraging, and also evinced an attempt to be critical at the same time. I have not had problems with critics expressing reservations about my books, although for the first time, I feel that I need to contest a number of [the reviewer’s] premises.

To begin with, [the reviewer’s] complaint that the writing uses “unfamiliar words and ambiguous phrases” is something that may be expected from a layperson. However, any academic ought to be able to determine the meaning of a word like “imbricated”; a media professor ought to be able to know what “high-gear editing,” “multiplicity of participations,” and “overscaled meddling” refer to, unless film, performing-arts, and cultural-policy terms happen to lie outside her or his sphere of expertise. Someone urgently needs to introduce the poor fellow to that basic research tool called a dictionary, upon which he might realize that whatever is “unfamiliar” and “ambiguous” about these examples may have all been a function of his hazy sensibility.

Even more serious is the clear possibility that [the reviewer] may not have been reading carefully enough. For one thing, he misquoted one of the book’s articles’ titles – i.e., “Sequacious Cebuano,” which is meaningless, was a mix-up of two different titles, “Sequacious and Second-Rate” and “Sedulously Cebuano.” Furthermore, he ascribed to me the phrase “shimmying exoticism,” when in fact in the published text it is in the plural, enclosed in quotes, and attributed to John Grierson in the latter’s description of the work of Robert Flaherty. More glaringly, “multiplicity of participations” is not only similarly quoted and attributed, but is also immediately followed in the book by a paraphrase of Roland Barthes’s semiotic redefinition.

The surest indicator that [the reviewer] may have been expecting a book of reviews when in fact he was presented with a body of criticism was when he demanded that the articles should have presented “an example [sic] of a scene or scenes from … the movies cited [to] enable the reader to understand and appreciate what David is trying to say.” The premise in reviewing is that the reader may be encouraged in or discouraged from watching a current release; in criticism, on the other hand, the reader is expected to have seen the item being discussed (or eventually make the effort to watch it), regardless of the author’s appreciation of or antipathy toward it.

Moreover, when did serious discourse ever make a claim to accurately represent the texts it was dealing with? A critique of, say, Crime and Punishment or The Bridges of Madison County (either the books or the films made from them) could never hope to fully recount their texts’ contents, and would only waste space and printer’s ink in trying to do so, when a journal or index or annotated bibliography might be able to provide that same function more effectively. If supplying a plot summary were necessary to the discussion, then by all means such a summary should be expected. But when [the reviewer] gripes that he does not understand what an “excessive cocksureness of approach” means and expects to find it in the movie’s narrative, he just might be in the dark regarding the embarrassingly antique insight that film is primarily a visual medium.

I would not even bother to speculate as to the possible reasons why [the reviewer] thinks that an anthology should have “focus,” and what he thinks this focus should be. It saddens me to note that [the reviewer] has not grown much in the intervening years. Is his notion of film theory still a matter of (mis)taking the elements of film in the context of classical Hollywood practice as the theory of film? Does he still refer derisively to Philippine movies when searching for samples of “bad” or “failed” applications in relation to the Hollywood model? Does the fact that a university press decided anyway to publish my manuscript indicate anything to him about how far gone the times have changed in relation to his ideas?

Thank you for providing this opportunity to engage in dialogue with one of your reviewers. I could have hoped for a more constructive exchange – a “multiplicity of participations” in effect, post Barthes – but my responses were imbricated in the excessive cocksureness, resulting in overscaled meddling, of the said reviewer’s “shimmying exoticisms,” to borrow once more from the late great Grierson.

Sedulously yours,

Joel David
New York City

Note

[1] The demise of Nicasio D. Cruz, SJ, in 2017 has made it possible for me to identify him as the author of the review, without worrying about any possible repercussion for him at his educational institution.

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Millennial Traversals – Culture at Large


Thank you for your interest in Millennial Traversals, my fourth sole-authored book. In addition to its distinction as, to my knowledge, the Philippines’s first complete open-access (non-journal) volume, it has reappeared as a print edition of UNITAS, the semi-annual peer-reviewed journal of the University of Santo Tomas – which has also reposted it online. Please click on this link to open Part II: Expanded Perspectives, where the article you are seeking can be found. You may also find more information on the blog page of Millennial Traversals.

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Millennial Traversals – Commentaries


Thank you for your interest in Millennial Traversals, my fourth sole-authored book. In addition to its distinction as, to my knowledge, the Philippines’s first complete open-access (non-journal) volume, it has reappeared as a print edition of UNITAS, the semi-annual peer-reviewed journal of the University of Santo Tomas – which has also reposted it online. Please click on this link to open Part II: Expanded Perspectives, where the article you are seeking can be found. You may also find more information on the blog page of Millennial Traversals.

Á!


The National Pastime – Issues 2

Film since February 1986

The two years since the 1986 February upheaval have spawned various situations for each aspect of Philippine mass media. A reversal has figuratively taken place in print, with what was once the alternative press now lodged in the establishment, in more ways than one. Whatever the apprehensions of practitioners for the future, in terms of the drift toward conservatism, consistency of circulation, and activities of trade-unionists, local print media – flourishing as it used to before the imposition of martial rule – once more enjoys the approval of our American counterparts for being freer than it may have a right to be. An irony has occurred in radio, the very medium that more than any other was directly responsible for the turnout of people power crucial to the overthrow of the past regime. Today the airwaves are better known as the domain of loyalists of deposed President Marcos, but the notion doesn’t seem too farfetched when we consider that radio has a captive mass audience, print has a more discriminating readership, and television is simply too expensive. With television the status quo may be said to have obtained, once we take for granted the shift in political loyalties. Viewership is as high as usual, but the proliferation of outlets as realized in the example of print failed to come about in the case of TV, partly because the huge financial outlets (only so many channels on the dial) promotes too fierce a competition. In one instance, the only newcomer, Channel 2, has been accused of restoring to controversial marketing strategies, particularly in terms of piracy of other stations’ programs, since its resumption of operations last year.

For the spoiled darling of local mass media, however, all three descriptions have applied in succession. From the period of the contested election that led to open anti-Marcos defiance, to until a few months afterward, the movie industry suffered a reversal so serious that insiders were comparing it to the situation three years back – when the obscene success of an international film festival led to moralistic backlash in the form of revitalized censorship. The irony was that, instead of acceding to the call for progress with responsibility, the movie industry chose to fall back on formulae that had proved effective prior to the slump. As a result, the local audience, which was ready for a cultural reorientation and reliant on the movies for a significant portion of this function, has been reconditioned to respond to the lure of escapism – the same element by which the previous regime had maintained a fantasy of fulfillment among the masses. Once the process of miseducation had again taken effect, the entire system had of course regained its status quo.

But with a noteworthy difference this time: what had once been prevalent was no longer necessarily acceptable. The most obvious indication of internal dissatisfaction with the movie industry’s recent actuations is the shift of its best and brightened talents to the related field of TV with a few others practicing in print, whereas in the past the movement, if any occurred, was in the opposite direction. The reluctance of the system of movie production to advance with the times is not difficult to understand. Among all the existing forms of mass media in the country, that of film realized its potential for political advantage along with the emergence of then-presidential candidate Ferdinand E. Marcos. Two terms later, each credited in no small part to the box-office successes of self-serving pseudo-biographical movies, the mechanisms for institutionalized control of the film industry were set up: the militarization of the censorship body in the middle period of martial rule, then the founding of a development agency right after the announced lifting of emergency powers.

Paradoxically the repressive atmosphere induced a reaction so daring and, because of the multi-levelled nature of cinema, so creative that observers even in other countries took notice and expressed admiration. These instances, however, were the extremes that contrasted with the rest. Eventually the mainstream, as a counter-reaction, calcified into the production of propagandistic action movies, cynical bold films, sleek melodramas, and inconsequential fantasy pictures. Thus the current dispensation, during its period of struggle, found in print and radio, and later TV, less resistance to its messages of criticism and dissent. Film was too closely guarded, and more complicated as a medium besides, to accommodate what was in the main an informational need. The then-opposition took note, and responded accordingly. After President Aquino’s takeover, film became the most neglected mass medium as far as the new government was, and still is, concerned. Its function of providing revenues through taxes that reduced gross intakes by more than a third was deemed sufficient to allow its open-market operation. The measure of freedom granted the more cooperative media, however, was denied the industry, on the hoary pretext that, revolutionary accomplishments notwithstanding, the masses’ morals still had to be safeguarded. Institutional support, which was necessarily non-profit in nature, was similarly held back, again with the use of the false logic that the system might have to resort to immoral movie screenings, as it did in the past, just to be able to support itself financially.

A strategy for salvation may be found in alternative action – the same measure that worked for the other media under discussion. At the moment, only two – intensive film education and alternative production and screening – have proved workable, and even then, on isolated terms. While the State University has graduated the country’s first batches of film majors, a plan to introduce film appreciation in high-school curricula fell through. Though an independently sponsored alternative film festival succeeded, the sponsorship of short-film competitions, from which cash incentives used to spur further production, has only been lately (too late, some practitioners claim) revived.

One last example will help clinch the argument. Although virtually every aspect of the movie system has been organized – from concerned artists to critics and even journalists – the inevitability of unionism still has to reach the most ordinary of movie workers. What the industry has at present are the extraordinary apparatus of an academy comprising guilds as well as a setup for a workers’ welfare fund – both of which are dominated by producers. Most curious indeed is the progress visible in print companies, in which trade unions have proliferated since the revolution and, in one instance, managed for a time to take over the operations of a now-defunct newspaper. In mid-1986 a major effort was exerted to once and for all organize movie workers for union purposes but, as in the attempt to implement film appreciation in high schools, the project failed to attain fruition.

All the failures so far may be traced to the same source: the apathy of the powers-that-be toward the potential for progress of the movie industry. The presence of censorship and the absence of institutional support, these two abide. Marcos-era experiments in providing one without the other merely proved that both are expressions of the same concern, on the part of authorities, that could either encourage or discourage responsible performance on the part of the industry. Specifically, the lifting of censorship without an institution to nurture the creativity of artists led to excesses on the part of filmmakers prior to the declaration of martial law, while the provision of institutional encouragement amid stringent and arbitrary censorship led to excesses on the part of government after the lifting of martial law.

Freedom and support then: one cannot exist for long without the other, especially in industrialized culture. Perhaps such was the intention of the past regime in allowing one innovation exclusive of the other, so as to prove the industry’s incapability of addressing the demands of progress. The possibility of withholding both or either is out of the question. As to whether the government will overcome its bias against the movie system and eventually allow it the means by which it could measure up to the challenge of growth and development, the prospects are so far in increasing danger of flickering out.

[First published December 1986 in Philippines Communication Journal]

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People-Power Cinema

To begin with, there isn’t any celluloid commemoration, whether factual or fictionalized, of the February 1986 revolution. The only one ever attempted, Four Days in February (Marilou Diaz-Abaya directing from Jose Dalisay Jr.’s script) has been shelved and, due to the recent reversals in the political fortunes of the Armed Forces “reformists,” has been for all practical purposes rendered stale as yesterday’s pan de sal. All this may be for the better. For one thing, the revolution is widely perceived by all its major participants, regardless of their positions on the political spectrum, as still finished, although I shudder to think what further upheavals await us. More important, those heady days 20-or-so months ago (more like a generation since, you’ll agree) seem better consigned to memory: at least there’ll be a multitude, millions literally, of versions of what actually transpired, rather than a few interpretations unfairly imbued with the aura of credibility through plastic manipulations.

A problematic, however, can be sensed from the fact that local film criticism has been thrown into disarray by what outputs actually turned up, rather than by what have been turned down or out. Not a single serious product made since February 1986 – serious releases immediately after, but those could only have been made before the revolution! After is what matters, and the trail so far is littered with melodrama and fantasy, hardly the stuff for the sensible artistic discussion we used to know…. Well, not quite, if we count in the occasional bold and action film. But save for last year’s critics’ awardee Takaw Tukso, the former has been nothing if not the now-standard exploitation vehicle, while the latter has evolved into that most unsatisfactory mutant, the real-life hero’s story.

There may be a more positive stance one can take, and I believe it’s not only practicable, but absolutely indispensable, if our so-called critics are to assume once more their relationship of mutual nourishment with the industry. The problem is that the dark days of dictatorship, pardon the bromide, fostered in us an equation of grimness with seriousness. The fact that our culture is predominantly Catholic didn’t help: what comes easy is always suspicious, if not downright sinful, so value increases in proportion so suffering. The application of this sometimes-but-not-always valid assumption to film criticism becomes painfully obvious if we re-view (watch all over, that is) the titles that seemed to matter during the Marcos years. Admittedly a handful of great ones will continue to stand out, but I’ll bet my sense of vision that a disturbing proportion will emerge as having been admirable for some form of political or social daring, and nothing more. To an extent more than we care to admit, we were actually putting a premium on titles with an eye to watching the powers-that-were, who never had enough good taste to begin with, squirm from the references. Artistic achievement assumed secondary value, the icing on the pie in Imelda’s face, and sometimes, especially in the case of genre (standard box-office) titles, even became a liability because of its threatening nature. Why, if a bold or fantasy or action or melodrama movie were to be given serious consideration, who’ll pay attention to the latest academically engineered agitprop work of what’s-his-name, when his budget, not to mention his skills, couldn’t even begin to compare with the industry’s full-blast capabilities?

Of course this entire state of things became possible only because the viewing public occasionally made known its support through its patronage, and so our sociological framework of the masses seeking enlightenment during a period of oppression comes full circle. But now they’ve come to prefer escapist entertainment, and our pinpointing responsibilities on film- and policymakers will only amount to so much barking up the wrong signpost. The February 1986 revolution remains, after all, a happy memory, a veritable dream-come-true no scripted theatrical experience could ever hope to match. The desire to somehow extend the good feelings, even if only in the confines of a movie house, is where we’re starting from. If we’re loaded with titles that provide nothing but happy endings – which is actually the current case, even among our favorite pre-revolution filmmakers – then we better start looking for new values to champion, rather than imposing old ones. And if I may add the obvious, this is as good an opportunity as we’ll ever have to return to simple virtues of classicism rather than imposing old ones. And if I may add the obvious, this is a good an opportunity as we’ll ever have to return to simple virtues of classicism in cinema – the well-told tale done with utmost competence, adding appropriate points for imagination. Where this will take us is anybody’s guess, including mine, but what matters right now is that film artistry, though always somehow with us, has never had, for reasons often beyond our control, its proper place in our hearts.

[First published October 28, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Studious Studios

The return of the studio system used to be one of the most abused bogeyisms brandished before us by prophets of gloom of various persuasions and motivations in the local movie industry. The scare died down recently, for the simple reason that the threat of studio re-domination never really returned. That was then, of course, and now all developments, to use a euphemism, indicate that no other setup exists other than that founded by and upon our modern-day movie moguls.

To be sure, the early confusion may have been numerological in nature. The last time a studio system flourished, it was manifested in the form of a trinity: a major, a rival, and an underdog, more popularly known as Sampaguita, LVN, and Premiere after the war. Movie stars, in an apparently instinctive bid to appropriate the axis of power among themselves, contributed greatly to the reshuffling, by attempting to violate the rule against shuttling from one outfit to another. The collapse of the studio system may have been due to the studios’ resistance to the upward mobility of their personnel, including their most prized possessions, their contract stars. All that was needed was for an entire pack of aspiring underdogs, then as now calling themselves independents, to provide lucrative options for discontented performers who’d break away from their money companies only to find themselves blacklisted (as a form of collective protection) by the other biggies.

The star system, however, never really prospered beyond an individualized basis, for roughly the same reasons that the independents eventually yielded to the superstars: the individual entrants were too self-sufficient to coalesce or forge alliances, and the local market could only accommodate so much – three at a time, it seems. In a manner of speaking, the industry’s system has never really been based on independents or stars, not once; only on studios. Once the inadequacies of the alternatives between independents and superstars became clear, the time was ripe for another season of studio domination. Three at a time, then. With Agrix and Bancom battling for supremacy during the 1970s, and a number of worthy stragglers, notably Crown-Seven, striving for third place, warnings began to be raised. Agrix folded up, so did Crown-Seven, leaving Bancom at the top and Regal, for a time an underdog, the closest rival. Bancom was then dissolved along with its larger conglomerate, and the apparent jinx suffered by those in the position of major was enough to pacify the pessimists.

Without much fanfare Regal took top place, while Viva came on strongly enough to claim the status of rival. Only an underdog-newcomer, the Marcos government’s Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), made enough noise by way of threatening to dislodge both occupants, and the rest of the movie industry as well, from their profitable circumstances. It took the February 1986 upheaval to eliminate, among others, this last obstacle in the re-establishment of the studio system. Seiko assumed the unlamented ECP’s underdog role, and happy days, at least for the mogul-owners, were here again.

So far all the evidence favors the reincarnated versions over their predecessors. They’ve been wise enough to allow the sharing of contract stars among themselves – to the detriment of the personalized social-cum-thespic training the old studios used to proffer, impose even, on an in-house basis. Lately they’ve even outdone themselves on a conceptual level. For where the old studios employed certain generic trademarks with which to identify themselves – LVN with musicals and costume spectacles, Sampaguita with fantasies and tearjerkers, Premiere with gangster stories – the present ones have taken to exchanging their corporate images with one another: Viva, which prided itself on gloss, has been attaching its name, rather than that of its sister company Falcon, to low-budget crime stories like Ex-Army and Boy Negro (formerly associable with Seiko) and recently came up with a Regal staple, a quickie musical comedy, in Buy One, Take One; Regal, on the other hand, has been taking tentative steps toward comparatively big-budget but komiks-based products (after its quickie formula failed to work in recent succession), with Nagbabagang Luha and the forthcoming update of Dyesebel; Seiko likewise has begun glossy productions in earnest, what with the satisfactory box-office returns of Hiwaga sa Balete Drive (more Regal in its comic-horror bent) and Isusumbong Kita sa Diyos (definitely a Viva formula).

Bernard Bonnin and Susan Roces, and Sharon Cuneta and Richard Gomez (left to right) as one another’s generational counterparts in Pablo Santiago’s Buy One, Take One (1988).

Most of these efforts were premised on the prospects of renewed moviegoer interest after the usual approaches became too predictable for (financial) comfort. No doubt the novelty of the old images carrying over into the new offerings had something to do with the encouraging turnout of viewers: Viva’s Sharon Cuneta and Phillip Salvador shedding their long-cultivated glamor, Seiko’s struggling also-rans suddenly basking in lustrous production values, Regal’s campiness to be enhanced (or perhaps defeated) by an uncharacteristically big budget. What is left for these modern-day mammoths to do is confront their one last impediment to immortality. In more than just the spiritual sense, the old studios passed away along with their founder-owners. The way the present ones are being run, it becomes easy for opponents to hope, if not in the progressive enlightenment of the moguls, in the eventual demise of Mother Lily, the del Rosarios, and Robbie Tan – a sure thing anyway, given the still-limited lifespan we have all been heir to. Decentralization may be the immediate logical response, although there remains one better strategy, the very factor that keeps certain LVN and Premiere titles in the consciousness of current film observers despite the virtual inactivity of the original producers: the word – but are we ready for it? – is, of course, quality.

[First published July 20, 1988, in National Midweek]

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An Update

Legislated aid for film appears to be the only way to go, since the dictatorial whim that set up certain support bodies in the past could not assure their sempiternity. This type of recourse, however, takes too long and allows too many things to go wrong. In the rush to come up with much-needed solutions, what have we been given thus far? For one thing, a system of censorship that, through legalese mumbo-jumbo, claims it isn’t so, although the effects are very much the same. Then a system of rating (as opposed to classification) executed by the self-same body, with criteria preempted by moralist biases. And last, a proposal to restrict foreign-film importation – as if the video revolution had never taken place, and as if we, especially as audiences, could do without exposure to the latest strides in world cinema. Clearly these are halfway measures at best, the ideals consisting of: a classification system that doesn’t coerce its applicants in any way, and that doesn’t result in tampering with the submitted work on anyone’s part; a rating system with financially remunerative consequences and utilizing overtly artistic measures; and a rationalization, rather than delimitation, of foreign-film imports, prescribing a system of priorities based on obtained and provable merit: award-winners first, for example, then non-winning nominees, and so on down the line, with undistinguished entries coming in last, where they belong. Other areas our lawmakers should begin exploring are film education and the development of markets for export. Late as ever, of course, but better than never.

[First published October 24, 1990, in National Midweek]

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The National Pastime – Ethics First

This article was first read at a Philippine studies conference, in an unsatisfactory panel where one paper reader, confronted with a difficult question, resorted to berating the audience for, in effect, not possessing the same level of film savviness that he had. I lost the original paper I drafted and wound up expanding the presentation version to approximately the length and depth I preferred and submitted it in time for journal review. I managed to recount a few of the citation sources I used for the present reprint; but the greenness of the scholarship, the occasional philosophobia, the reliance on dualisms, the erasure of the spectator, the hectoring tone – these still manage to disturb me, though not as intensely as they did when the piece came out. Possibly because I discovered a few things that I took for granted then: one was that someone else had anticipated my article “A Second Golden Age” by identifying precisely the same phenomenon a month earlier…and that someone was me; less facetiously, I recognize here a striving toward original theorizing, a possibly less-useful ideal today but an earnest expression of seriousness of purpose that would move me if it had been written by someone else rather than my naïve and sentimental self. [The essay came out on pp. 190-97 of The National Pastime.]

The eventual centennial of film in the Philippines some time during the forthcoming decade may serve as sufficient excuse for its beneficiaries to pay tribute to the medium – and, in the course of doing so, inquire as well what has been done for the medium in return. This concern is actually larger, nationwide at least, in scope than it may sound at first, once we agree that most Filipinos do benefit from the industry, and if we grant (as well we should) that entertainment alone could be counted a crucial aspect of well-being. The best way of summarizing, both for outsiders as well as ourselves, our contribution to the medium of film is by presenting our practice in it in the form of material proof. A truly comprehensive retrospective of outstanding outputs in Philippine cinema, however, would of course be next-to-impossible to mount, and would in a way always preempt the succeeding batches of work by defining them in advance, instead of observing the proper historical method of allowing the future to modify the present.

A more economical way would be to reduce this summary to a logically acceptable abstraction. I cannot overemphasize the advantage here as being primarily, and probably exclusively, financial, since the entire history of ideas in film thus far all points to a succession of overdeveloped, inconclusive, or half-basked systems of thought that, for the last quarter-century at least, have never proved adequate for mainstream film practice. The reasons are not difficult to comprehend once we view these developments in film theory in the light of essential film practice. The nature of film theorizing began with fanciful speculations regarding the still-to-be-created medium in the 1800s and even earlier, as Western artists sought several ways of reconciling the presentation of reality, its spatial and temporal properties intact, with the delight of having such a presentation in a final, permanent, concrete, and disseminative form (Canudo 58-65).

Closely related to this seminal tendency was the consideration of properties inherent in specific media of expression, and how these may interact with one another. Film, as we can easily discern in retrospect, served as the vital link between theater (reality as raw material) and literature (imagination distilled and preserved for posterity). But on the way to its realization, it first underwent an intermediate technological stage – photography – that also drew in the basic principles of the visual arts, of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Hence it should come as no surprise to learn that proper theorizing on film had always been technology-based and media-comparative, with the aim in mind of determining the purpose of the medium vis-à-vis other existing media. And it never came together in one metaformulization, for the simple reason that the technology of film, which dictated the pace of basic film theorizing, took all of the first four decades of the new medium’s existence to develop.

The advantage of this sort of step-by-step dissection of the emergent technology for us latter-day observers is apparent in more ways than one. First it gives us a clear understanding of the mechanics of film according to individual elements isolated and maximized in practice; in addition, it supplies for us, as it no doubt did for its contemporary observers, a body of output that constitutes undeniable proof of the same medium’s potential for superior artistry, even in its relatively underdeveloped phase. The major stages in the technological development of film, in chronological order and according to attendant progressions in film thought, would therefore be the “fine” photographic approach, the discovery of montage, the improvement of film stock, and the introduction of sound. Color, for all the happy critical salutations that it first occasioned, has remained an innovation similar to the standardization of screen proportions: everyone observes it, more or less, but everything done with it so far, including the violation of its conventions for purposes of artistic experimentation, has never led to any significant extension of the technical capabilities of film the way the other developments had.

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Specialization Pros & Cons

Academic film training has been responsible for the relative professionalization of film practice in the major international industries, including the United States with the emergence of the so-called Hollywood brats; with the necessary policy support, it will also surely provide a much-needed overhaul of values, if not systems, in the Philippines, with the introduction of academic degrees starting at the University of the Philippines (UP). What remains clear from this outcome was the increasing specialization of film practice, to the detriment of truly protean thinker-practitioners. No longer was it acceptable for filmmakers, or people close to them, to articulate their highest philosophical concerns; publicists or reviewers would do just as well, inasmuch as practitioners were not expected to have big overriding questions to confront. Film academicians, on the other hand, were expected to remain above the din of commercial practice, way up in ivory towers of productive speculation on film, lest they be suspected of harboring motives of crass materialism, considering how easy it has always been to benefit from casual associations with show business.

Toward the middle part of his career the realist theorist André Bazin hailed the Italian neorealist movement and proceeded to define its physical parameters (65). Here finally was a locus of film practice that may have been national (actually post-World War II Rome) in origin but which also had the potential of spreading out as a socio-industrial ideal instead of the usual exportable technology. Bazin consistently chronicled the directions and upheavals of the movement based on the output of its practitioners, but he died before any major transformation had taken place. Further developments in film ideas were to share these crippling effects on film practice. Certain academic film institutions have provided what seems to be a satisfactory means out of this impasse, by calling such recent suppositions in cinema “methodologies” instead of theories (cf. Nichols). The complications posed by such speculative actuations for a situation like that of ours should be immediately obvious. With the country on the threshold, optimistically speaking, of economic development, a community of reactors influential and skilled enough to provoke interest and discussion in such undertakings would be hard-put to come by. Moreover, the aforementioned distance such methodological ruminations afford from practical purposes of film creation could become the basis of widespread dismissal by the public.

One possibility offers itself – one premised on the emergence of Italy as a national force in world cinema with its own distinct contribution, neorealism, despite its Third-World economic status then. Neorealism itself had been posed in the past as an appropriate model for our national cinema, grounded as it was in the selection of immediate and available thematic sources as compensation for a paucity of filmic resources. Such a notion is of course self-limiting in terms of both theme and technique; neorealism itself, as we have already seen, refused to remain as it had been in its country of origin. Filipino filmmakers have had noteworthy enough periods of apprenticeship in the craft, what with the adaptation of realism during what is now known as the first Golden Age in the black-and-white period (1946-59, per Bienvenido Lumbera) and the influx of New-Wave influence in what is now emerging as a second Golden Age during the Marcos era, 1975-85, coupled with the already mentioned academic institutionalization of film starting at UP. The strategy aims at the creation and sustenance of a socio-industrial system that will allow for maximum creativity in film, given the realities of our current cultural setup.

Articulation of this theory will be difficult and long-drawn-out, and highly dependent on the results of film practice and experience. The outline will initially observe ethical rather than aesthetic prescriptions, and may move into practical, possibly technological, dimensions depending on developments both local and international. Never has such a formulation been undertaken on a major scale anywhere beyond what had been propounded for neorealism, and even then Bazin’s articulations ended with a description of the movement, not (unusual for the man) with anticipative attempts to suggest or explain where it was going. How can such a movement of creative ferment graduate to making contributions on the world-class scale of film technology, or at least film technique? Clearly this theory is premised on the real potential of film to link up with national development. The theory’s premise posits a conception of film as a distinct and vital entity, with a physical – in fact, industrial – dimension capable of interacting, clashing or harmonizing or coexisting, with the other institutions at play in both the cultural and politico-economic realm.

“Film” in this instance may also constitute an abstractifiable variable that includes the dynamics of film practice as reflected in the products of the industry. The reason here is that it is necessary to have a basis for generalization more final and conclusive than what historical minutiae can provide. This is the advantage that film possesses over, say, a political institution: the products of the latter would still be individuals or, at the most, processes based on individuals, and therefore always subject to the vagaries of human behavior. More traditional artistic activities, on the other hand, would not have the major industrial status that makes film a force to reckon with even on a social scale; the final “filmmaker” is, auteurism aside, still the collective responsible for a production, unlike the book’s writer or the play’s author. Once the conscious pursuit of this theory gets under way, and survives the country’s economic advancement, it would then be a simple matter of claiming the financial and logistical subsidies necessary for the initial implementation of an expansion of the medium’s technological capabilities. Hence the program for the prevalence of film should work for the strengthening of creative prerogatives in film practice and the flourishing of concomitant imagination in film theory and criticism. This may be mapped out according to four areas, all of them overlapping with one another: governmental, educational, industrial, and ideological.

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Areas of Concern

Government. A reorientation of state cultural policy has to be effected, with the current dispensation disabusing itself of the misconception that the provision of institutional support for the industry, recalling though it may the previous regime’s expressed tactics, will consequentially stigmatize the practice. The Marcos government undeniably went overboard in favoring film over other mass media, but if the other media were able to rise in opposition, this was simply because they were less totally controlled compared to film, and more predisposed to propagandism in the first place. A number of institutional modifications though may still prove irresistible to the present government in a strictly monetary sense, and may be utilized to provide the necessary support on both domestic and international fronts. Locally, I refer to the provision of tax rebates through a film ratings board that classifies films preferentially according to open and evolving criteria of quality;[1] as in the past, the government could allow itself, in the form of service fees, a reasonable percentage of the collections, prior to turning these over to the rebate winners.

Censorship of film, although unconstitutional, still cannot be successfully confronted, since its roots are more cultural than pathological, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. A mechanism for international exposure, where such a practice could be scornfully dispensed with, should be set up with strong emphasis on the marketing of local products to prospective foreign buyers. Allusions to the Manila International Film Festival might crop up, but then where the latter strove for prestige and goodwill, to the point of opening up the local market to international sellers, the new edition should seek to completely reverse this trend. Interest in Filipino products need not be drummed up in this same venue; the government should instead be compelled to facilitate the permission of local films and filmmakers to participate in foreign festival competitions, and perhaps extend incentives to successful participants via a tie-up with the film ratings board (e.g., automatic or additional rebates for international festival winners).

One last governmental contribution would be entirely unprofitable, but just as indispensable. The national film archives should be restored to a status of true autonomy, instead of its current and anomalous attachment to the local censors body, wherein archival personnel can presumably be tasked with neglecting, and thereby destroying, titles deemed detrimental to the ideals of the mother entity. Government could ease the burden on itself by requiring producers to deposit prints of every film output that comes along as a condition of the permit to exhibit, thus enabling itself to concentrate on reproducing or acquiring titles of more valuable vintage.

Education. Meaningful film education can and should be concretized through the expansion of academic film offerings. The state university should take the initiative in enjoining other colleges and universities to offer degrees in film, so as to further minimize the elitism still associated with the program. A position of academic leadership, meanwhile, can be promoted through the implementation of graduate-level film programs, still based in UP. A proposed course for requiring film study in secondary schools, which integrated film appreciation with social studies and literature and included teacher training, should be revived, updated, and implemented alongside an institutional plan to harness existing movie theaters to screen the titles necessary for study.

The ideal to be aimed at in the educational thrust is the thorough professionalization of the local industry, wherein prospective film applicants are best expected to present academic credentials. The long-standing demand for professionalism will thus be supplied with a solid and reliable means of enforcement, rather than the personalized character rebirths fashionable at the moment. Moreover, alternative cinema, which has been languishing this past decade for want of a mass audience capable of appreciating the self-conscious artistry of its outputs, will be able to utilize the network and audiences of educational institutions as among other things a springboard, from which a passage to the government’s international festival-market may be devised.

Industry. Studio domination should be seen as a means of achieving stability in the industrial system, while independent productions tend to be receptive to innovations in practices. Thus while a too-powerful entrenchment of studios (as was the case during the first Golden Age) is always in danger of stagnancy, an open season among independents could only result in resistive abuse. The balance currently obtaining between studios and independents should be maintained for as long as possible, preferably by legislative means. Naturally, since the metropolis tends to favor established outfits, independents should seek other still-lucrative venues. Foreign festivals are currently receptive to Third-World products, but the wherewithal necessary for participating therein would prove too imposing for truly struggling productions. Independents should take heart in the emergence of the South as a national economic force; the Cebuano-language audience, which has always been dependable (though not as profitable as that of Manila), might even now be ready for a resurgence of regional viewing fare. An Iloko movie or two might also perform creditably at the tills, if only as a reaction to the renewed pride and consciousness of the South.

Meanwhile, the importation of foreign films would be better rationalized than delimited. Toward this end, small and scattered art houses, rather than the mammoth and inaccessible Manila Film Center of the past, may be set up to accommodate what mainstream theatrical circuits would be reluctant to exhibit. The influx of video would make the control of the entry of foreign films a futility; neither has it satiated the appetite of the public for movie-going, as originally feared. More important, foreign films provide one of the most effective and perhaps the most inexpensive means for local practitioners and audiences to update their knowledge of film language and culture. In more practicable terms, the proposed art houses could eventually take over the function of the movie-houses commissioned to provide logistical support for secondary-level film education.

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Ideology. Creative activity should encompass, as it occasionally used to, the application of experimental or multifarious modes of expression to native-sourced material, without necessarily requiring the burden of additional technology. Ideological debates as presented and developed in various fora of national concerns should also be made to reflect in film products with proper dramatic treatment, rather than the dualisms that still typify local discourses. Both requirements depend primarily on the contribution of the writer, so aesthetic groundwork should seek to modify the claim of auteurism upholding the director as the most important creative factor in filmmaking. The industrial aspect could make its contribution, however small, by giving emphasis to writers’ credits in publicity materials, and in providing prominence to writers’ achievements. Better still, film educators should take care in maintaining a strong orientation in liberal arts and literature, and instead reserve the mostly technical approaches of visual training for craft purposes.

In the end what should be striven for is the primacy of filmic argument over its counterparts in sociopolitical realms. Critical activity should aim to develop a breed of reactors capable of figuring out the means by which film expression transforms raw ideology into modified or higher statements which, in being ultimately aesthetic, transcend the limitations of their origins. All too often film commentators are either inadequately prepared buffs with ulterior motives of crashing into the industry, or highly qualified sociopolitical experts whose air of condescension toward the medium stifles their appreciation of the virtues of filmic thinking. Innovation and sincerity of expression then, rather than conformity to a pre-given sociopolitical prescription, should be the guideposts of critical reaction. Critics should be measured according to their intellectual flexibility and adherence to the potential for plurality of media formats and achievements. This of course is not equipollent to the current multiplicity of awards for film and related media, and would better be served by a proliferation of filmic discussion in print; incidentally, this view also ascribes to electronic media[2] the more ephemeral function of film reviewing.

Finally, excellence of critical expression should once more be given strong emphasis in the local literature of cinema. This would of course be facilitated by the proper liberal-arts and literary orientation in film education mentioned earlier, but with the additional challenge of developing other Philippine languages, starting with the national language, in terms of their capabilities for critical expression. The abiding principle here is the property of written as well as visual language largely sharing intellectual appeal and an attendant expectancy of fluency of usage: if critics could demand that filmmakers perform at or above par in their craft, then likewise should filmmakers demand that critics write well, if not better.

Several of these issues as presented either belong to the best intentions of both film practitioners and observers at present, or have in fact been realized by them, if only occasionally. The question of feasibility, however, could not be a major issue at this point, since what I have outlined is based entirely on current realities. With the conversion of these recommendations into a movement of national significance, the formulation of a theory of Filipino film may be made – belatedly perhaps, but happily nonetheless.

[First published September 1989 in Philippines Communication Journal]

Notes

[1] This concept, adapted from the successful implementation of the Film Ratings Board during the Marcos era’s Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, was eventually re-implemented, with even the original institution’s name intact.

[2] Prior to the dissemination of new media, the only “electronic” media at this point were radio and television.

Works Cited

Bazin, André. “De Sica: Metteur en scéne.” What Is Cinema? Vol. 2. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. 61-78.

Canudo, Riciotto. “The Birth of a Sixth Art.” 1911. French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology, 1907-1939. Vol. 1. Ed. Richard Abel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988. 58-65.

Lumbera, Bienvenido. “Problems in Philippine Film History.” Revaluation: Essays on Philippine Literature, Cinema and Popular Culture. Quezon City: Index, 1984. 193-212.

Nichols, Bill, ed. Movies and Methods: An Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

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The National Pastime – Issues 1

Censorship and Other Compromises

A curious aspect in the local experience of film censorship is the fact that, in the rare instance of libertarian restraint on the part of government, the eventual clamor by the influential members of society has been for more censorship, not less.[1] This contrasts dramatically with historical developments in other media of expression, in which at least one side – the so-called progressive segment of society – welcomes the granting of freedom and strategizes whenever possible for the institutionalization of newly acquired benefits. The differences can be perceived from concrete examples of recent origin: where the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines exists only in ignominy, castigated toward the end by the very same concerned artists who helped set it up, the “alternative” elements in print and broadcasting today dominate their respective media, rising from the status of glamorized underdogs by waging and then winning their wars on the circulation and advertising fronts.

Film & theater activist director/actor Behn Cervantes (1938-2013) in an anti-censorship rally.

The salient distinction arises from the fact that film, more than any other form of mass media, is an industrial product, notwithstanding the assertions of a number of enlightened filmmakers. For indeed, who is the filmmaker? The director (as pronounced in occasionally mystifying foreign critical terms) is generally regarded in artist circles as the central intelligence, but he (sometimes she) usually merely interprets an earlier work, that of the scriptwriter – who in turn may have derived more than just ideas from another source, but for simplification’s sake let us stop here. The writer’s ideas would be almost always embodied in, if not argued by, a character or group of characters, which in industrial parlance translates to actors. The actors, unlike the director, do more than interpret: they provide the motive for the movie to go as it were into production by assuring, through their box-office draws, returns on investment. And where would a movie project be without investment in the first place? If producers were concerned more with credits than with profits, one wonders if the politics of auteurism (a movement which ascribed final credit for a film to its director) would ever have prospered. The authentic auteur – a producer-director-writer-performer, rarely found even in alternative formats – is the exception who proves the rule.

This industrial nature does not prevail as strongly in print, broadcasting, or theater, which are generally conceded to be writers’ domains. Where a singular source of responsibility can be pinpointed, it becomes easier to enforce ideals from within the community of artists. Hence the tendency among writers (in print, especially) toward censoriousness – a creature totally different from the monstrosity of censorship – toward one another, particularly the ones perceived as abusive. Filmmakers, or more accurately the makers of film, on the other hand, tend to exculpate themselves by pointing to one another, or if it becomes unprofitable or too late to do so, then perversely they turn on the hapless moviegoing masses on whom they rely to patronize their products.

The issue in basic law should therefore be modified, more so at present when that same law is being redrafted, to whether industrial expressions should be given the same status as individual expressions when it comes to the enjoyment of constitutional rights. Of prime importance here is the consideration that industrial output presumes a profit motive and results from several possible compromises, responsibility residing in a collective of individuals that breaks up as soon as the industrial process is completed (i.e., after the money has poured in). The previous regime’s schizoid approach in exercising film censorship and at the same time exempting an official entity on the one hand, and endorsing film classification and exempting taxation on the basis of quality on the other hand, may in retrospect seem too scatterbrained to be effective. But waste not the lessons of history, as the sage said, or else be doomed to repeat it. Already becoming evident is the imposition of a parochial (Catholic aristocratic big-business) stringency in film censorship, being challenged by or challenging a resort to alternative circuits (countryside moviehouses, replacing the Manila Film Center) by film practitioners desperate for easy profits.

If anything, Marcos-era government control over the film industry indicated that a reliance on extremes – total censorship and total freedom at the same time – promoted excesses on both sides. Of more instructive value are the well-received, though not entirely officialized, innovations in the toleration of film classification and the granting of incentives to quality output. And herein may lie an even more profound lesson for dealing with larger sociopolitical issues: the solution to a compromise-laden problem (represented in our discussion by film as an industrial product) may be found, not in the extremes applied to uncompromised challenges (censorship or exemption from it as in the case for written works), but in the best available compromise as well (classification and incentives for quality in film). Now if our national problems could be just easily simplified….

[First published September 15 1986, in New Day]

Note

[1] In a subsequent study, Lynn Hunt pointed out that the concept of obscenity, the elimination of which is the state’s motive for exercising censorship, became part of Western legal discourse after the propagation of printing technology – see “Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800,” The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800, ed. Lynn Hunt (New York: Zone, 1996): 9-45. Prior to this way of thinking, graphic sexual descriptions, access to which was then-confined to aristocrats and church officials, was described without the need to call in state control mechanisms – e.g. erotica.

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Film Reviewing and Criticism

Film students’ faces are almost always wide-eyed and expectant, understandably because of the stimulating nature of their subject matter. The few occasions they predictably go blank are when I’d drop a French-derived theoretical terminology, or when I make my standard assertion that film criticism, as it’s been known elsewhere, doesn’t really exist in the country. Why so?, the questions begin. The entertainment sections of dailies and magazines feature comments on current and forthcoming titles – maybe not regularly but often enough to convince even disinterested observers of their presence.

The confusion over the differences between the reviewing and the criticism of films had been taken up and resolved in international circles some decades back, but for certain cultural and circumstantial reasons, we find ourselves with the impression that film criticism goes on as is where is, and suffices for purposes of appreciation of the medium. Said reasons operate as a complex, but I guess one could make the effort of disentangling them for easier scrutiny. Taking the typical nationalist reflex of finding others to blame first, one could come up with enough of an argument with which to exculpate fellow practitioners. The state of medium-specific film theory, which is in a proper sense the purest form of film criticism, arrived at a dead-end a long time ago with the practical perfection of the medium, and to ensure that formal film studies would still benefit from the momentum of dynamic film theorizing, the academicians took over.

Now certain intensively intellectual disciplines, mathematics and philosophy for instance, benefit greatly from what has come to be known as ivory-tower activity. But film happened to be fun to study yet correspondent with real life at the same time: it’s an art form with a sociopsychological dimension, true, but it also has technological, industrial, and political aspects no less essential to its development. So when the era of real interaction between the theory and practice of film reached its maximum, with the admirable collaboration of critics and filmmakers (and at least one instance of a combinative genius in Sergei Eisenstein), filmmakers branched off into collecting their moral and financial dues for their years of risky experimentation, while critics sought refuge in churning out propositions for the medium that couldn’t find productive applications beyond the self-promotion of their proponents.

The more practicable methodologies include auteurism, structuralism (currently trying to make a comeback under Marxist guises), semiotics, and so-called Third World film criticism, which is actually a rehash of phenomenological propositions. I label these “practicable” because they could (and did) prove to be useful for film classification and a certain though often irrelevant type of evaluation; but heaven knows how many more filmmakers steeped in these schools of thought will be venturing forth with at first the conceit of holding the key to the next phase of the evolution of cinema and finally winding up with a body of pretentious, at best inoffensive, but never really vital, works.

How then does one determine if a theory deserves a status of serious consideration not just in film study but in practice as well? Simply put (though difficult to propagate), when it can be formulated as a proposition for a creative strategy, and when the application in turn yields insights into the original formulation and suggests further directions in speculation within and without the theory’s framework. Hence Eisenstein’s reflections on montage resulted in his Battleship Potemkin, and in the other direction Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game aided André Bazin in spelling out the whys and wherefores of deep focus.

On the other hand, the Cahiers du Cinéma school of auteurism (ironically associated with Bazin) resulted in a movement of wonderful personal films from the proponents themselves – no big deal but then again this reflects more the sincerity of the New-Wave critics-turned-directors rather than the soundness of their fury; in their wake, all the way to the present, came a glut of aspiring filmmakers whose notions of greatness derived from imposing on their audience a “mark” of some sort or other – a prop here, a stylistic device there – in the hope that the accumulation of these little quirks would amount to something more than indulgence, which of course rarely became the case. You can imagine how much more impossible it becomes for a pro-structuralist or -semiologist to come up with the Next Leap Forward in film theory, just by marveling at the inordinate complexities and near-obscurity of the basic texts.

And now Filipino film scholars have all this to contend with – a list of readings sounding terribly erudite but rarely with the disclaimers of their failure in practice; this plus the fact that the local industry has hardly progressed beyond the basic montage-vs.-mise en scène debate in cinema, and most probably never will, because of the characteristics of technology and market. And we haven’t even begun to consider the dynamics of writing on film in the Philippines.[1]

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State of Local Criticism

Much as we love to deplore the current state of poverty in film criticism, the Philippine situation isn’t really all that unique. Of course advertisers resent it when the pages they run their layouts in publish negative notices of their products. Of course readers burdened with elementary-school grammatical capabilities (observed for local newspaper writing) wouldn’t bother to read polysyllabic and syntactically playful analyses of what in the first place they regard as entertainment. Of course editors need to protect their advertisers and please their readers. And of course film writers will be lucky to find a way out, if not through, all this, dealing along the way with various impositions and influences peculiar to their status as members of intelligentsia.

Most people hereabouts seem to agree that film commentary is largely a matter of endorsing a worthy product and repudiating a worthless one. In fact the local reviewers’ group, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, points up this consumerist thrust in its organizational documents, and then some: in cases where film elements attain similar levels of competence, the members are expected to prefer titles with more “social” orientations.[2] As to how this has reflected on the group’s current claim to significance – the Urian awards for achievements in film, a highly specific case inquiry has to be done first.

The inadequacies of film commentary for consumerist purposes reveal themselves through time and practice, and the fact that the Manunuris still have to own up to this reveals how much of their time they have wasted and their practice neglected. The industry turns out only so many films a year, each intended to recoup investments from an audience of the impossible maximum of sixty million, the newborn, handicapped, and aged included. To tell readers who care to pay attention that a certain product isn’t worth patronizing is tantamount to telling off an entire system that wouldn’t have any other way of recovering losses and therefore alerts itself to offensive moves from any front, regardless of the purity of motivations.

Then we come around to the vicious cycle where most moviegoers couldn’t care less about aesthetics to begin with, only with entertainment values, and so the film reactor committed to working within a journalistic grind gets reduced to selectively evaluating films (only the praiseworthy ones), or compromising her or his criteria to conform to the less antagonistic aspects of film appreciation. This presumes that the film critic-aspirant possesses the minimum of an academically acceptable sensibility to being with, but in practice the entire setup is so pervasive and aggravating that beginners in the craft of writing on film rarely even acquire insights on possible areas of exploration and development.

Hence the sorry state of film criticism extends to not just the circumstances surrounding the practitioners, but the condition of the practitioners themselves. One defense, as seen in the Manunuri stipulation of criteria, lies in the distortion of consumerist prerogatives to the point where film is perceived as something that’s intended to further the welfare of its patrons: not only is film comment supposed to distinguish the products to be patronized from those to be shunned, the highest form of recognition is also reserved for the title that keeps the best interests of society in mind, as if the obverse (society keeping in mind the best interests of its art forms) could be placed in subordination. Another and more insidious corollary from the ranks of the self-proclaimed critics, at least the organized ones, is based on the assertion that the filmmakers themselves don’t come up with discussible films often enough anyway; this attitude has served to justify the perpetuation of the Urian awards despite the well-known divisive effects it promotes in the community of film artists. The Manunuri’s arrogance in this regard has attained a height of sorts with the group’s cancellation of this year’s ceremonies because of the supposed paucity of instances of quality in film output during the previous year.

Lost in this enumeration of excuses is the purpose itself of film criticism: to provide for the development of film through refinements, if not advancements, in film theory and aesthetics. In practical purposes, the biggest losers aren’t really the financiers, who have found ways and means of either buying out or arm-twisting disobliging commentators; nor are the so-called critics either, given the facility and the mechanisms at their disposal to present rationalizations for accusations against their performances. It’s the film practitioners who in the final analysis are left without any means of critical support, eternally in peril at both ends of filmmaking activity: from the producers on the one hand and prospective film commentators on the other. If any substantial discourse about film has to be done, it can only be accomplished largely from within the ranks of the filmmakers – and such has already been the case, in the instances of individual artists so far. The body of work of the likes of Ishmael Bernal and Ricardo Lee, to name two, reveals a clear progression in working out approaches to the medium; a competent, eager, but naïve film researcher, however, might manage to search high and low for parallel discussions in print regarding the directions these individuals have taken and might take, but will never come up with an accurate articulation of their concerns beyond what they or the evidence of their works will be able to state.

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Reviewing vs. Criticism

A major instance of inadequacy that still has to be pointed out was how, in the case of Ishmael Bernal, local film critics never really managed to pinpoint, even within a wide latitude of accuracy, the director’s actual intentions for the use of the medium in his 1976 film Nunal sa Tubig. The material answer arrived four years later, too powerful for anyone to ignore – in the masterpiece that was Manila by Night. Issues on Nunal sa Tubig then centered on the validity of adopting devices perceived as Western to treat what was alleged to be non-Western material The debate may have carried some weight in politicized discussions, but hardly merited attention within a strictly pro-artist approach, wherein devices necessarily possess neutral significance and are intended to be measured by how effectively they lend themselves to dramatic exploitation.

In hindsight, however, this deficiency in analysis ironically assumes a positive import, stemming from the fact that a controversy ever occurred at all, even if only regarding a peripheral aspect of film. Today the attitude among the more serious film commentators seems to presume that the medium deserves no further figuring out apart from what can already be acquired from available references – a viewpoint antithetical to what a practitioner like Bernal, for all his professed indifference on this score, is undeniably occupied with, on the basis of his continuing output.

Most urgently a call needs to be sounded out for an awareness of the relative worth of film criticism over reviewing.[3] The formation of the Manunuri can be credited with having elevated the status of reviewing over public relations work, but then the next stage has been long overdue. Commentaries on film need not always conform to the journalistic expediencies of outscooping competitors, providing the latest on every film output that comes along, and taking stock of space and market limitations at the expense of ideational progress. It should go without saying that such an approach will still have its place in our cultural setup, just as film publicity still finds excuses for being; but criticism of film – essential, learned, and forward-looking – cannot be delayed just because current conditions don’t seem to warrant it: no one expected film reviewing to gain public acknowledgment either, until the Manunuri came along.

By way of starting out, it would help to reiterate the differences between film reviewing and criticism by drawing from the more advanced discipline of literature: reviewing would involve the articulation of the writer’s reactions to a particular work or number of works, with a popular aim in mind such as endorsing or condemning the work, encouraging or disparaging the filmmaker, or even merely expressing a personal opinion; criticism, on the other hand, requires a more advanced treatment, with the objective of discussing, from the standpoint of abstraction, problems pertaining to the potentials or limitations of the medium, whether as art form or industry. A particular work or number of works may be employed as springboard in criticism, although a hypothetical question may serve just as well. For where in film reviewing validity is dependent upon the work under discussion, criticism does not require comparison with any title mentioned in the course of discussion to determine the strength of the points being raised: the primary test lies in the logical acceptability of the relationships established among the ideas in question, as well as the applicability of the said ideas in basic film practice.

I’d also like to point out the way in which film criticism will eventually get the state of local film commentary out of the rut it finds itself in at the moment. From the critic’s point of view, any movie is worth criticizing because of the industrial nature of filmmaking; no film can ever be finished without its having raised an issue relevant to modern existence, whether aesthetic, technical, moral, social, financial, philosophical, political, psychological, etc. But then any piece of criticism demands further discussion, and so any film being subjected to criticism will, or at least should, always be worth watching. The challenge for the essentially subjective individual is to arrive as closely as possible to this objective analysis. A simple or simplistic film, a failure in terms of innovation in any way, will be easier to evaluate than a more complex one, which could go on providing insights even decades after its initial presentation; with criticism firmly in place, film commentators will be able to reserve for themselves the prerogative of subjecting their initial perceptions to revaluations.

[First published January-March 1989 in National Midweek]

Notes

[1] The situation described from this paragraph onward obtained before the emergence of so-called new media, i.e. the internet era. For a more recent explication of the concerns of this essay, see “Pinoy Film Criticism: A Lover’s Polemic” in Manila Review 4 (February 2014): 49-32.

[2] This elaboration of a presumably progressive adjustment of New Criticism’s form-vs.-content criteria for significance may be found in all texts by the organization that describe its annual movie awards – mainly brochures and the decadal “Urian” anthologies (the first, for ex., was titled The Urian Anthology 1970-1979, with the rest adopting this pattern).

[3] Most of the points raised here echo the writings, directly or otherwise, on the differences between reviewing and criticism, as elucidated in the output of practitioners during the so-called “Golden Age of Movie Criticism: The 1950s through the ’70s” in American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, ed. Phillip Lopate (New York: Library of America, 2006): 207-504.

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Fields of Vision – Positions

1. ASEAN Affair

Anyone old enough to have participated in our last supernational film activity, the Manila International Film Festival (MIFF), will now be suffering a seven-year itch that the recently concluded 1990 ASEAN Film Festival will barely be able to alleviate. Part of the reason lies in the unfair observation that the countries that constitute the Association of Southeast Asian Nations don’t have film industries as active as ours; two of them, in fact – Brunei Darussalam and Singapore – don’t even have film industries at all.[1] In maintaining that we happen to have the most impressive system and products of film within the organized region, we at once find an area, no matter how economically dispensable, where we reign supreme, and at the same time allow ourselves the indulgence in the reverse modesty we so masochistically enjoy inflicting upon ourselves: shucks, fellas, we the best? – it’s only film, see, and we don’t even take it seriously, really….

You didn’t miss much if you weren’t at any of the free screenings at Robinsons Galleria; you’d only have acquired some insights, if you were there, on the popular preferences and concerns of our regional neighbors, something our archipelagic isolation has rendered secondary to media-raised Western issues. Moreover, you’ll only confirm that we excel where others don’t, which isn’t particularly impressive when you consider that they excel where we don’t either; and to pursue this materialist line of thinking to its painful and paranoid conclusion, it may appear that our better-developed neighbors simply conceded, in true Oriental fashion, some silly recreational businesses to us, so as not to make us appear too backward.

Excel we did anyway, and that is something that ought to be put on record, something no one – warped logician, commercialist financier, negligent government official – can take away from us. Malaysia’s Hati Bukan Kristal [The Heart is Not a Crystal] (dir. Rasas Ahmad Alauddin, scr. Adibah Amin) and Indonesia’s Taksi [Taxi] (dir. & scr. Arifin C. Noer) all flounder in melodramatic mush, notwithstanding the claims of the delegates of their respective countries that each was one of their best outputs last year; Taksi, in fact, boasts of having won all the major prizes in the Indonesian Film Festival. Both entries revel in romanticized fantasies of social and sexual desiderata that resolve in comfy establishment positions. In Taksi two men in love with a singer-actress have to live with her insistence on emotional and financial self-reliance, while her managers (and admirers) must accept her potentially career-destructive confirmation of her married status. Hati Bukan Kristal starts off with a journalist getting piqued by an enterprising female colleague; a dangerous and sensational assignment brings them together, and guess what happens next.

The Thai film, Puk Pui [Tell Them We’re No. 1] (dir. & co-scr. Udom Udomroj, co-scr. Thongkao Makampon) affirms what was warmly evident even during the MIFF: that our latitudinal fellow Asians have a way with the camera and with cinematic storytelling. They seem to be driven more by angels than by demons, as we tend to be. Puk Pui isn’t anywhere near the social-epic accomplishments of Luk E-san [Son of the Northeast] (dir. & scr. Vichit Kounavudhi), which won an MIFF special jury prize as well as the Office Catholique Internationale de Cinema award. Comparatively, Puk Pui is linear in its narratory design, detailing the coming-of-age pains and pleasures of a lower-class boy who somewhat accidentally acquires the reputation of being a jinx; in being rejected by most everyone he encounters (save for a female classmate who, like him, loves to dream big), he manages to interact with a wide variety of social types, urban, and rural. His age group and unusual affliction help justify a string of humorous incidents and running gags, including some of the most charming bits of movie slapstick this side of the globe.

Add some years of cruel and bitter hardship to these characters, and you’d be close to the material of the local entry, Gumapang Ka sa Lusak [translated as Dirty Affair] (dir. Lino Brocka, scr. Ricardo Lee). Close, I said, but not all there. Gumapang Ka doesn’t have the grim surfaces that the Indonesian and Malaysian entries exhibit, apparently in order to drive home their preoccupation with realist issues; neither does it proffer the delicacy and good cheer of the Thai movie. What it has, relative to the other entries, is an irruptive delirium made entrancing by a deadly serpent’s-eye finish, put together with something akin to the witchery of twentieth-century Eumenides. The ironic thing is that all the festival entries, Gumapang Ka included, were custom-made products paraded in a venue where innovation is, or at least should be, the prime criterion for success. What the ASEAN event should try exploring is the expansion of audience interest and critical participation, via the standard resort to award-giving; the ASEAN capital whose turn it is to sponsor the festival could be made to shoulder all expenses and responsibilities for such a competition. Before this could be implemented, of course, the countries should agree to the usual terms of fair play and the unusual exemption from any form of censorship. The entries may be further contracted, should they win certain prizes, to participate in a tour of exhibition in all the member-countries; as in the MIFF, the host country may be allowed to enter two films for competition.

Coming from a country whose entries have been demonstrating clear superiority for some time, such a proposal might meet with charges of self-serving motivations. Moreover, the organizers themselves might not want to see one another in a competitive context. What needs to be emphasized, however, is the importance of arousing the interest of the festival’s intended beneficiary, the ordinary Asian movie-goer, so a free-for-all in this instance might be preferable to a safe-for-some.

[First published April 17, 1991, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] The same year this article came out, Singapore started film production, an activity that continues to the present.

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2. Carnival Cinema

Cinevision 2000 the presentation was called, but the site itself called to mind the provincial fairgrounds of my childhood, gone to seed. Situated within the carnival area of the Philippine Center for International Trade and Exhibition (Philcite), Cinevision 2000, which was actually billed “Adventures of America,” could be reached from the nearby Philcite entrance by walking (but more often squeezing) through an open-air platform and a succession of kiddie and adult rides, the non-existent pathway obscured even further by food and souvenir booths of various sizes.

On a less frenzied night you could probably make out, once inside, the dome that ought to be held as ultimate proof of how fanatic you are about filmic presentations. You wouldn’t feel too lonely as fanatic, though, since the Cinevision screenings are regularly jampacked with more enthusiastic (and thereby less pretentious) carnival thrill-seekers. Running for the entire length of the Philcite carnival season, Cinevision 2000 made up the only unique film event of Christmas 1989. Wave Cinema, which featured video movies, closed down its singular Cubao venue two years ago; the Rizal Park Planetarium operates year-round and doesn’t really offer movies, unless an audiovisual mishmash of penlight projection and slide-tape presentation proves extraordinary enough for you to forgive the crudeness of it all.

The carnival charged five pesos for entrance, while the Cinevision 2000 booth made the same amount per head per presentation; since there were three (presentations, not heads) in all, and since I shamelessly admit to film fanaticism, my, well, only adventures of America thus far cost me a reasonable twenty pesos, roughly a third of what I could have spent to watch all the concurrently showing Metro Manila Film Festival entries.

One item in my recent past motivated me strongly enough to brave the Christmas crunch, despite the fact that I was otherwise too yellow, in the original sense, to do regular shopping: in a First-World country about a year ago, I realized the most exciting and insightful audiovisual treats in a fairground. One of these was a 380-degree movie presentation highlighted by continuous panoramas, facilitated by projecting the images through slits between screens. The exhilaration of movement mellowed quickly, however, since only the forward-moving portion provided the delight of discovery; the scenes blurred by the sides, and receded wearily in back. Moreover, the novelty of an uninterrupted horizontal line of vision wore off with the instinctive preference for a frontal point of view, and served to raise the next logical question: once one decided on a consistent lateral orientation, what would be seen beyond the upper or lower screen edges?

The answer brought the experience back to the familiarity of regular movie-going: nothingness, the masking off of the “reality” of the screen, intended (as per early expressionist theory) to draw the audience into the screen’s center, but also essentially a reminder of the literal limitations of the frame. Cinevision 2000 in this sense improved over the overseas production by opening up, as it were, the perpendicular boundaries, and by negating the backside view by a most basic device – seating the audience. To be sure, the means by which this was facilitated was far from sophisticated. A circular portion of the carnival site was sectioned off with a domelike structure, with the smaller center elevated and covered with canvas. Half of the inner portion of the dome was painted white, the other black; the edge between colors arched exactly from one side to its opposite. A gigantic 70mm. 180-degree “Sensoscope” projector was titled upward toward the white side, but where you sat (roughly at the center) your entire frame of vision would be encompassed by the screen.

All three films – fifteen-minute entries titled “Cavalcade of Thrills,” “Horizon,” and “Wild Wild West” – contained similar elements of non-stop point-of-view motion from various elevations of land, sea, and sky, including climactic roller-coaster somersaults. “Wild Wild West,” the best of the lot, opened with what appeared to be an authentic old-time black-and-white silent film featuring a sheriff-vs.-varmint shootout, its fadeout dissolving into a tunnel scene that emerged into a Sensoscopic car chase. None of the films observed a narrative, although two of them had voice-overs in German that the audience was willing to ignore. All were blatantly manipulative, with one instance of what seemed to be a mountainside car-race participant’s falling off a cliff and soaring over the shoreline – a helicopter shot that initially observed the contours of the road to mislead the audience into believing it was driving rather than flying. The Filipino movie-goers’ high threshold for filmic experience was evident in more than just the turnout of crowds. Each and every turn leap, spill, and near-miss was rewarded by squeals of excitement; considering that the moviemakers obviously aimed at cramming as many such gimmicks as possible into their products, each screening amounted to a virtual screamathon, probably rewarding for the psyche but definitely not for the eardrums.

After an entirely overwhelming first salvo, however, I began wondering if this sort of innovation could be put to good use the way conventionally ratio’d screens lend themselves to film magic. A minor difficulty would be the confirmation of distortions at the edges once the camera stops moving to allow actors to do their thing. Greater trouble may lie not with the stars but with the too-perfect simulation of reality: if the illusion achieves a totality previously denied by black borders, what’s to prevent the viewers from contributing their share to the action? From another perspective, this may be one way of rationalizing the financial infeasibility of attempting this kind of format locally. A future carnival, in a future festive season, might yield a presentation whose potential would outweigh any objections or reservations regarding its effectiveness. After all, when we speak of cinema, this was how it really started – as a mere fairground sideshow that refused to fade away.

[First published February 7, 1990, in National Midweek]

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3. Classroom as Theater

One of the predicaments I still have to solve as a teacher of film is the formulation of a proper response to colleagues who do not teach film whenever they go into their standard lamentation of how appalling the decline in student literacy has been. On the one hand, I do not have much of a choice except to agree. One of my undergraduate courses was journalism and during our time, the exceptional competence in English or Filipino that we associate with our most outstanding graduates today was the norm. (“Our time,” not to unduly alarm anyone, was about a decade ago.) On the other hand, the discussion of causes invariably points toward the very subject matter I teach, which is film in its expanded audiovisual sense. Most everybody who believes in being somebody feels compelled to consider a preference for audiovisual language as an illegitimate, or at the very least sub-academic, pursuit. The conclusion does not require considerable leaps of logic to reach: the great masses of our people exhibit this preference for nonprinted material – film, komiks, TV, radio, theater (including religious rituals) – and, if we assume that these media could also function as languages, they may even be literate in those terms. But since the same sector of the populace is uneducated (inadequately educated, actually), then literacy in these kinds of media would not be such a big deal compared with the ability to read and write.

Official educational policy has upheld this view for close to a century now or ever since film, the first and most successful audiovisual medium ever, has been in existence. To be sure, literature, whether oral or written, has had a longer and in many ways more glorious history and deserves the strongest possible emphasis in any educational system. However, the evidence of the past ninety-plus years cannot be ignored either: people continue to be lured away from the two (or maybe even three) Rs. During our time our teachers complained that their generation wrote better, as we are now saying to our students, and as our students who will go into teaching will surely be saying to their students.

The trend contrasts impressively with whatever observation we can make about film. Actually since virtually the entire first half of the life of Philippine cinema has not been preserved, we can only talk about the latter half, comprising the 1950s up to the 1990s. If our literature and, by controversial extrapolation, our readers got worse or at least did not get better, our films (and our moviegoing audiences?) on the other hand definitely improved over the years. The average Filipino goes to the movies (and also “reads” komiks, watches TV, listens to the radio, and so on); that much we all grant. But then again, average Filipino students, who necessarily constitute a smaller portion of the populace, are different in the sense that they go to school, where they are made to read and write; afterward they go out of school, sometimes for good, and then behave much like average Filipinos. That is, they go to the movies, “read” komiks, watch TV, listen to the radio, and so on.

It would not do those who set our educational policies any good to resist this reality. Film, or film language if you will, is much too accessible, mainly because it is profitable – and when we begin talking about economics these days, that could not be too much of a good thing. What we should start with is what we already actually have. Some of it is not bad at all: film language is real, meaning it allows for easier translation and a whole lot of crosscultural interactions, in comparison with the printed word. Moreover, the level of film literacy of Filipinos is arguably superior to those of their neighbors in the immediate Asian region, if we go by the percentage of quality outputs available locally in relation to those of nearby countries and (a more contestable criterion) the level of Westernization in local film technique.

The movies have lately been assuming part of what the educational system has been unable to accomplish because of the latter’s still essentially elitist orientation. Local cinema has, at one time or another, criticized militarism (and, by association, the previous fascist dictatorship), advocated democratic processes, upgraded the image of women and queer folk, and provided an awareness of the existence of a colonial past. It continues to supply its audiences, majority of whom are impoverished, with insights into their conditions and with reflections on their dearest aspirations. Recently, it has also embarked upon the risky venture of castigating the white man and the traditional politician, simply by casting these types as villains rather than heroes this time around.

It has also proved capable of other things that some of us would consider unacceptable or even harmful, but then this all boils down to the fact that, officially, we do not take this, our national pastime, seriously. We teach our students how to read and write, and when possible to read and write well. We also assume they know how to choose the films to watch, and we may even be correct. But as to choosing the films well – well, they haven’t complained about still being in the dark in their approaching hundredth year of solitude, have they?

[First published October 17, 1990, in National Midweek]

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4. Film Critics Speak
[Prepared with Mau Tumbocon & Patrick D. Flores]

To begin with, we observed that the entire spectrum of existent Filipino criticism is evident in film; in short, cinema is the most widely discussed art form in the Philippines. Practically all publications acknowledge this widespread interest by devoting regular sections to film, and film commentary is also making inroads in television and radio. It is the level of commentary, however, that leaves much to be desired. As far as general impact can be gauged, we can safely state that serious film evaluation is performed and sustained primarily by the handing out of awards by various bodies. We cannot deny the publicity mileage this generates, especially since the sheer number of award-giving winners could go on for as long as the very last trophy during the very last ceremony still has to be handed out.

There are six established award-giving groups, as of last count, some of them clearly overlapping in claims and functions. Although one could argue the relative merits of each, we would rather take the larger and more controversial stance of stating that film discussion, although heavily promoted, is also seriously trivialized by award-giving. There is no focus of discussion, except the comparative aesthetic achievements of the nominees – and even then the fact that film is too complex an aesthetic system to be subjected to this treatment is glossed over. We would also like to point out that the movie industry labors under government neglect, particularly when compared with the institutional support provided by the Marcos dictatorship. We do not endorse the kind of self-serving and overscaled meddling suffered by our practitioners during the latter years of the dictatorship. On the other hand, we agree with some of the industry’s advanced sectors that relief from taxation and censorhip, as well as cash incentives for quality productions, no matter how occasional, resulted in an atmosphere of sanguinity then, and would still be welcome features today.

At this point we would like to go into one particular, and that is – the need to implement an honest-to-goodness system of film classification, one that does not result in the tampering of the work on anyone’s part, and that also presumes the liability of the practitioners strictly within the context of absolute freedom of expression. Meaning to say, one should be held responsible for violating our existing laws on the limits of expression, but one should also be allowed to complete the process of expression to begin with. We welcome the role that education plays in making the audience more aware of the nature and potentials of its favorite mass medium. However, we believe that the availability of such education is too elitist to be truly effective. A student first has to reach college and study in particular schools, mostly the expensive ones, in order to be able to take courses dealing with film. To specialize in the field, the student has available to her only one school, the State University. For advanced studies, she has to go abroad.

We enjoin all our fellow film critics to persist in popularizing film discussion without trivializing it. We seek to encourage sober discussions in as wide a spectrum of our audiences as possible, and recognize the cruciality of the role that Filipino film artists have been playing in conducting dialogues, no matter how limited, among themselves, with film commentators, and with the audience. In cooperation with our educational institutions as well as the mass media, we call for the expansion and development of local film scholarship, in order to provide a firm basis for popularizing film commentaries.

Lastly we would like to maintain the manifold advantages of expanding opportunities in film. Government could help a great deal in facilitating our filmmakers’ participation in foreign festivals and markets, counting the costs in terms of additional income and prestige rather than the personalistic self-image of whoever happens to wield power at the moment. We need to have more schools offering film courses and full-blown degrees in the field, as well as higher studies specializing in the medium. We envision the resulting network as a possible venue for alternative film products, with an eventual bearing on mainstream production. We also stand as one with our colleagues in pursuing the thoroughgoing professionalization of criticism in the Philippines, so as to enable serious film commentators to practice and grow in the craft without the distractions of unrelated income-generating activities or the temptations of public relations work that could compromise the formation of well-informed, carefully thought out and expertly articulated opinions on film.

[First published October 3, 1990, in National Midweek]

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5. Shooting Crap

When Joey de Leon claims he couldn’t care less about critics’ complaints regarding his use of toilet humor, the issue doesn’t revolve on the soundness of his argument. Toilet humor, as used in the context of this debate, is unofficially understood to be a sub-category of obscenity – in direct opposition to our moral guardians’ shibboleth of wholesomeness. By extension, the argument goes, toilet humor, as a form of obscenity, is socially undesirable and therefore should be subject to suppression. No one has ventured to raise the issue of legality so far, although this would clinch the controversy in a convenient way. Anyone, De Leon included, could easily answer that the antiquated nature of our censorship laws renders such an approach amorphous at best; still, the issue at stake remains unarticulated.

Joey de Leon gets away with toilet humor – has the right to it, in a manner of speaking – simply because he has been so darn successful of late. During the early days of his trio with the Sotto brothers he might have taken the pounding with, well, a grain of salt; their always moderate and occasionally pleasing box-office returns could serve to ease the sting somehow. But now he has struck it rich, and it’s not so much the pwer he holds ove the characteristically purchasable movie press: appearances to the contrary, he’s not that crude, and he need not be so in the first place. It’s the implication of so fail-safe a formula on so financially frank a system, when any project without De Leon’s pretensions to satire – without De Leon himself, even – could now be assured of record-shattering box-office returns by merely purveying shit jokes on primetime.

In short, the moguls owe so much quantifiable gratitude to Joey de Leon for this good-as-gold discovery. Not even Imelda Marcos’s pera-sa-basura [money-in-trash] projects could prove as conclusively as Starzan et al. did that the sound of cash registers ringing could compensate for the fumes of unflushed concepts. And even if a movie writer had enough sense (and guts) to dismiss the big-timers’ current sanguinity with what may eventually be known as the De Leon formula (endless swigs of castor oil following entire plateloads of goodies, with a movie crew on the alert), a rebuttal happens to be waiting in the wings from the opposite direction. The logic runneth thus: 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 De Leon “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.

There may be two ways out of the impasse that both sides find themselves ranged against at the moment. One is that of historical materialism – which basically posits that nothing lasts forever, least of all a thing of no real value. Just as Dolphy’s piss jokes and Tito, Vic and Joey’s snot jokes saw their respective heydays come and go, so will Joey de Leon’s fecal fixations – if not in the near future, then along with De Leon himself, may his sould find peace (no critics in heaven?) come the time. The trouble with this attitude is of course its superciliousness, consciously partaking as it does of the same judgmentalist approach that it initially seeks to distance itself from. The only other option, which may seem the least desirable because of its passivity, used to be impossible to adopt because of the polarizing consequences of the previous political dispensation; if Marcos were still around, the toilet-humor controversy would have been resolved in favor of one side or the other, eventually depending on the perceived benefits to the state.

It may be time for a little more sophistication then. How about regarding such devices as attempts at cultural innovations, the breaking down of taboos in preparation for possibly more serious discourses in future? Part of my reservations about De Leon’s objectors is the sneaking suspicion that the campaign would not have taken on a strong degree of outrage had Starzan, if not the rest, been a Critically Defensible Work of Art. But what if, then? Would we have expended all our intellectual resources defending a crap scene (as was proved aesthetically viable in an early Wim Wenders masterpiece, Kings of the Roads) – eyeball-to-eyeball with Manuel Morato if necessary, just because art’s sake was at stake in this instance?

One way of looking at the situation is through the perspective of guerrilla strategy. Filipino film censors have traditionally been suckers for artistic provocation; the best way to get their danders up in the past was to inject an offensive aural or visual detail in an otherwise integral prestige project. But beyond the delight of watching them mouth the most culturally illiterate justifications for the imposition of already ill-advised policies, the consequences – stricter censorship procedures, mangled or banned products – were definitely too exorbitant for all those involved. Since in their view the less artistically minded products pose proportionately less harm to the community, why not allow such items to take the lead in toppling the ramparts of convention? Come the time when a real and responsible filmmaker will find it absolutely necssary to put in a cussword or a toilet scene or a subversive idea, the precedents would have been set, the producers would have been satisfied, the masses would have been bored with the usual treatment, and everyone might be a bit happier with the attempt. Had Ishmael Bernal done Manila by Night (whose entire toilet pick-up scene, among countless others, was deleted in the original release) late last year, he might have to thank, among others, Joey de Leon for the trophies he’d now be collecting.

[First published April 4, 1990, in National Midweek]

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6. Fleshmongering

One of the early distinctions, dubious though it seems, of the 1990s is our latest designation of what we’d all known the past two decades or so: that the sex film is marketed primarily for its audience’s carnal titillation. Ever since institutional controls on the treatment of sex eased up (though gave up would be the more satisfactory description) during the ’60s, our film practitioners had been relying on a series of merely suggestive, sometimes even coy, labels for what were in a sense products of a worldwide and continuing cultural revolution. The first word was bomba, drawn from the political turbulence of the period of its emergence, the pre-martial law years. One would expect that the original namesake – the pro-activist sector, not Roger Arienda (whose nickname would not have stuck had his public ignored him) – would have resented the industry’s adoption of one of its virtues to refer to a diametrically opposed form of passion, personal rather than social. Instead, both sides seemed to have arrived at an understanding that they had more in common as subversives committed to certain material ends, and so demonstrators then were not averse to patronizing the latest sex flick, just as the more sensible bomba practitioners, particularly Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, and Celso Ad. Castillo, would turn out socially critical subjects once 1081 had effectively closed the season of open expression for both camps.

Bold, the next term, served to consolidate a number of mildly descriptive labels, among which “wet look” proved to be the most graphic (and therefore most popular). “Bold” is of course antediluvian relative to bomba; even Gerardo de Leon’s FAMAS record-setter, Huwag Mo Akong Limutin, which copped out on an abortion scene (reputedly its most shocking feature), was called worse things by the censors – and this was during the 1950s. But what revitalized the genre, allowing it to even surpass its predecessor, was precisely the aforementioned social consciousness that our filmmakers developed along the way. No bold film was ever as, well, frontal as the typical bomba movie was; on the other hand, no bomba product could equal in significance the best martial law-era movies that employed sex either as additional come-on or as legitimate topic for filmic discourse.

The decline of the Marcos regime made possible an approximation of the bomba era, while the fall of the Marcoses led to a complete backslide. Obviously “bold” wasn’t bold enough anymore. The acronym penekula (from penetration + pelikula) was coined ex post facto, with the renewed moralism generated by the 1986 revolution plus the cheaper resources afforded by video combining to making graphic sex films too notorious and small-time for a reputable and long-term undertaking. And so we now have sex trip, although where it will take us is really the big question. The name is still too novel for generalized considerations, associated as it is with an aspirant-to-major studio, Seiko Films, which still has to pay its dues for industrial success by way of awards-worthy projects. If the term sticks, it won’t be the first time a studio engineered a classifiable trend in movie-making: if my memory serves me right, Regal Films, then also a struggling outfit, identified itself with bold-film production, to the point of incurring the ire of a culture-meddling Imelda Marcos.

The main difference, however, is that all these titles – bomba, bold, even penekula – managed to redeem themselves with projects memorable for more than just their extent of skin exposure, while “sex trip” just happens to be more frank a description than the rest. Nothing on the order of Nympha, Pagdating sa Dulo, or Tubog sa Ginto from the bomba era, Aliw, Brutal, Burlesk Queen, Karnal, Moral, Salome, Sinner or Saint, or Manila by Night from the bold period, or Boatman, Private Show, Scorpio Nights, or Takaw Tukso prior to (but within the spirit of) the penekula trend can serve to so far justify the sex-trip films as worthy of, say, aesthetic appreciation by the year 2000. Not even the emergence of a performer comparable to Yvonne, Chanda Romero, Rio Locsin, Amy Austria, Lorna Tolentino, or Jaclyn Jose, or the spectacle of an established star like Eddie Garcia, Vic Vargas, Rita Gomez, Vilma Santos, or Gina Alajar trying on genre for the possiblity of career enhancement.

A kind remark is in order, though, and it is the recognition of the fact that the sex-trip trend is laboring under a severly imposing tradition. Any self-respecting artist would think twice, to say the least, before allowing her product to be called, under whatever currently fashionable appellation, a Pinoy sex film. What the name “sex trip” has going for it, however, is something stronger than a mere sense of history: there appears to be the promise of profit in the term, not to mention the convenience of an abbreviation. How far the potential can be contracted, pardon the puns, should give way to every imaginative attempt at its expansion.

[First published April 18, 1990, in National Midweek]

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7. Firmament Occupation

Generally but strangely regarded as one of the perennial problems of Philippines cinema is what has come to be called the “star system.” Stars, or extremely successful movie performers, demand astronomical figures that invariably limit a project’s allocations for other aspects of production. The obvious logical lapse in this formulation is the way performers are distinguished from the rest of the elements of film – as if directing, scriptwriting, cinematography, editing, and clapboard operation, among other activities, can contribute to a movie’s excellence, while acting cannot. Worse, this assumes that characters, the central feature of commercial cinema and a whole lot of non-commercial movies as well, are separable from all the other things that go into the completion of a filmwork.

The problem lies in the fusion of two highly charged terms to a situation that isn’t remediable by any long shot, much less a close-up. “Stars” exist wherever intense human activity is complemented with high visibility; cinema happens to be the most obvious and permeative modern-day example, but one can have stars in other contexts too – politics, academe, religion, fashion design, smuggling, entomology, etc. The absurdity of aspiring toward a star-less ideal can be seen in the execution of a political system that averred as much: first, the masses themselves became the supposed stars; eventually, the leaders, in the guise of representing their constituencie, assumed for themselves positions of prominence. The other word, “system,” is the one that compounds the problem. As far as movie histories anywhere have exhibited, there may have been vacillations between a studio system and an independent system (and a trend toward total government intervention locally during the latter part of Marcos rule), but there has never been so far such a thing hereabouts as a star system. Strictly and analogously speaking, a star system depends, in full material terms, on the existence of stars – meaning, stars not only facilitate productions by the guarantee of their presence, but also provide the wherewithal for the productions themselves.

The combination is crucial. A star may have been the entire motivation for a particular project, while on another occasion she may have engaged in film production, but unless she invested her own money in the first instance and carried enough box-office clout to be the movie’s main attraction in the second, then she would never have been essential part of the movies system; she’d be just a star, if that were semantically possible, in the first place, or a star who happened to produce in the second. In the beginning it wasn’t all that simple, precisely because matters were much simpler then. Anyone who had both money and ego could go into movie-making: one could cook up her own project, assemble a production staff, direct them and herself, and collect the returns in good time. The giants of early Hollywood cinema – Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith – and their local counterparts – Jose Nepomuceno, Vicente Salumbides, among others – were virtual one-person studios, with every possible filmmaking skill, including lead performing, arrogated unto one and the same individual.

To a certain extent we still have devotees of this almost-ancient era who try to keep the faith when they can: America’s Woody Allen and our very own…well, Celso Ad. Castillo. Filmmaking, however, and turn-of-the-millenium life too, have becoome too complex and fast-paced and expensive to allow for integral approaches to anything, especially creative endeavors. This we saw for ourselves with the story of our studio system. The producers, three of them actually, who had enough foresight and managerial skill to allow for specialization and long-term planning eventually dominated the industry, giving rise to a so-called Golden Age of stability and consistency of output during the 1950s. But because the Big Three moguls refused to recognize the even more specialized claims of movie workers, including stars, to extreme fluctuations in income, insisting instead on fixed salaries as the basis for industrial professionalism, the less principle-obsessed outfits were able to bid for the services of the talents who mattered, and consequently toppled the system of studios.

These more pragmatic producers, who called themselves independents, gave rise once more to the possibility of self-production, this time with a more lucrative twist: not only would a star entitle herself to the proceeds of her own film, she would also be able to guard against creative sabotage and, most important, boost her stocks further in the market for acting services. The rate of a Fernando Poe Jr. or a Dolphy would now be computed on the basis of the profits either of them could realize if the FPJ or RVQ production houses took charge of the projects, rather than how much their previous films had made for their respective financiers. Hence what we have at present is really a historical confluence of two opposing systems – studio domination (three major outfits) and independent production, with a highly distinctive and restricted (and aging) star subsystem subsumable under the latter; there also happens to be an even smaller but less definite circle of performers who produce films, but not necessarily themselves in these films, and much less themselves to sell such films.

Are these categorizations always significant? Not so much in the consideration of how the presence or absence of a star in her own production provides any form of psychological (or now-emergent ideological) modifications, but more in the area of pinpointing what constitutes a problem for study, rather than an occasion for well-worn rhetoric. Take out censorship or taxation, and you could conceivably realize some forms of improvement in film production, if not in film quality; Marcos-era experiments in industry control provided more-than-adequate proof othe workings of such dynamics. Eliminate stars, and if they don’t get replaced, then maybe the movie system itself has burned out.

[First published May 30, 1990, in National Midweek]

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8. Blues Hit Parade

What may soon evolve into a form of cultural schizophrenia, if it isn’t at that stage already, is the current contrariety of attitudes toward the state of Philippine cinema. On the one hand are the pessimists, who resumed their lamentation once it became clear that the four-year-old 1986 revolution was not going to result in anything on the order of the best outputs of the Marcos years; on the other hand, the optimists point out that, after the revolution’s alarming dead stretch, local movie producers never had it so good, with one box-office record after another being broken in rapid succession. I must stress at the outset that my sympathies lie with the latter group, and that the lure of lucre just happens to be one obvious and too-practical reason. For too long the critics of Filipino movies took their calling in an adulterated sense – i.e., judging severely instead of judging fairly, which is the primary definition of criticism. What we may be hearing now is a reassessment of the worsening portion of Marcos rule as the glory years of local cinema, but if you go back to that era, you may have difficulty distinguishing the condemnatory tone of critical writing then from what you may be able to find today.

The upshot is that since our industry practitioners were not made aware of the excellence of their collective performance then, they had to accept the rejection of their situation along with the system that spawned whatever merits it contained. In short, after the change in political administration, everyone was completely in the dark as to where to begin – a return to active institutional support (Marcos’s example) was out of the question, while on the other hand the movie-going public seemed to have fled along with the regime, leaving almost a year-long period of nothing but box-office traumas.

Congratulations then are in order for our industry leaders, for the success of their concept of a turnabout. I feel confident enough to even bet that no other local industry has managed its own resurrection in as financially triumphant a manner as did our movie practitioners. Balancing the absence of absolutely reliable box-office reports with the assurance that no one in his right mind would readily boast of grand profits owing to an ornery tax situation, the recent feats of box-office records being broken much more often than they ever used to be would be something quite phenomenal. And yet…this time our critics are on target in bemoaning the decline in quality of our movies, and we have enough reason to fear that the enthusiasm of local producers may be verging on recklessness. The reason hinges on the correlation of both factors: box-office returns are not enough precisely because of the absence of quality in the outputs that facilitate these returns – not so much because of the absence of long-term or overseas profitability, much less a non-material consideration of the implications on cultural hygiene.

The danger of relying primarily on lighweight material to draw in heavyweight profits lies in the demonstrable possibility that what used to be relatively lighweight may not turn out to be so anymore, especially if it proves profitable enough. The mechanics can result in some truly panicky complications: quickies make more money, so more people want to be in on the action, thereby spreading thin the amount of cash available for profits; among the interested parties would be the government, which can (and did) increase its share through taxes, thereby diluting even further the profitability of easy movie-making. The possible scenario veers between less box-office winners (and record-setters) and cheaper quickies – with the worst case combining both. And the closer we approach either situaton, the farther away we get from the possible solutions. The decline in local, or more accurately Metro Manila-based, profitability points to the potential of exploring the only regional market that has proved historically viable: the Cebuano-language circuit, now worth another serious consideration because of the economic resurgence of the South; Cebuano movie production, however, petered out in the past precisely because the region could not provide the profits that Metro Manila can offer, so this results in a closed circle, with everyone left out.

The other option is the exportation of our products, and here we must initially contend with both our colonial sense of inferiority plus the slow pace of returns – possibly necessitating the offering of initial titles as sacrifices to the altar of long-term investments. Once these are surmounted, an even greater hitch emerges: the international-scale quickie would of course be Cecil B. DeMillean beside its Pinoy counterpart, and coming from our premise that big-budget production would be too infeasible at this point, camote cultivation might not seem so small-time an alternative after all. A sadder consequence awaits those who appreciate film for reasons that render mammon secondary. The big, proud, expensive movie would be as much a part of the past as the mammoth, its appropriate namesake, while the modest achievement will become too costly to produce on a regular basis. We can fantasize about Hollywood brats coming to the rescue of our masters the way they did elsewhere – until we wake up and realize that the countries these now-needy filmmakers represent once worked hard to create a favorable impression on the international film community, while all we every really did was produce quickies to break our box-office records, with our own government making sure that the profits did not outstrip its capacity for “sharing” them.

Ah well. Maybe then we can all learn to read and write in a common language and arrive at some plateau of achievement, before we discover how to level it down once more, but that would be another (non-filmic) story.

[First published June 27, 1990, in National Midweek]

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