Tag Archives: Criticism

Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Mini-Appendices & Works Cited

Mini-Appendix A: Self-Study

There is a wealth of introductory books on film theory, most of which provide an adequate overview of ideas on the subject. I usually recommend Robert Stam’s Film Theory: An Introduction for the author’s acknowledgment of the interests of non-Western peoples; it is accompanied by a supplement, edited by Stam and Toby Miller, titled Film and Theory: An Anthology. The more comprehensive standard collection, continually updated, is Film Theory & Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, now on its 8th edition. A still-useful reference would be the two volumes edited by Bill Nichols titled Movies and Methods: An Anthology. A recommendable process would be to complete an overview, read up on the authors who prove interesting and useful, and proceed to these authors’ book-length output. (Make sure though to still read up on the other authors later.)

11011I would also urge any beginner to provide herself with a beyond-theoretical summary of the field; a sample (that badly needs updating) might be The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, edited by John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. Considered a basic and vital introduction to film aesthetics would be David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Jeff Smith’s Film Art: An Introduction, currently on its 12th edition. Bordwell himself maintains a website that contains his recent articles and updates, as well as an exemplary blog with Thompson (as primary author) titled Observations on Film Art. I mention this to be able to badmouth all the other film-studies websites that fail to display the same degree of rigor and thoroughness, and these are legion. Avoid getting into those (and writing similar crap later – you’ve been warned) by using Thompson and Bordwell’s material as benchmark, and focus instead on reading as many entire books as you can find useful, whether for instruction or pleasure.

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Mini-Appendix B: Deconstruction

Two French names are central in studying deconstruction (unfortunately still far from being fully assimilated in Pinas education, even in grad-school programs): Jacques Derrida, whose principles were initially reduced to methodological approaches by overeager American literary critics, but who persisted in tackling forward-looking global issues through the turn of the millennium; and Michel Foucault, acknowledged as influential by several new progressive activist movements as well as historians grateful for the opportunity to regard the past in new ways.

11011Both have been extensively translated to English, with Foucault generally more readable than early Derrida; both are also well-served by scholars who sought to explicate the deconstructive turn, which requires a grasp of interdisciplinary principles drawn from history, literature, aesthetics, sociology, politics, psychoanalysis, and economics. (Sounds intimidating, but it gets easier as you go along.) Read up on as many introductory materials as you can find, then explore each one’s body of work before forming your own take on deconstruction and its usefulness for social change. You may even reject it, but if your ultimate motive is to return to an older set of ideas, then save yourself the trouble and find other ways (if you can) to defend an order that has become part of the past.

11011Your encounter with deconstructive principles will lead you to certain trends and ideas that may or may not be familiar to you, depending on how updated your educational institution was: binary systems, poststructural frameworks, identity politics, and so on. Unlike preceding systems of thought that mimicked monotheistic religions in claiming the finality and correctness of their premises and prescriptions and abhorred all manner of dissent, deconstruction has the potential of operating without end and leading to relativistic, if not nihilistic, conclusions. It can of course turn into its own form of dogma, open to exploitation by both left and right extremists, so the challenge (recognized early enough by politicized thinkers) is in harnessing it to attain progressive social change. At the very least, the excitement of encountering a new set of ideas for the first time will be yours to claim.

 Works Cited

Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? Volume 1. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style. 2nd ed. Madison, WI: Irvington Way Press, 2018.

Bordwell, David, Kristin Thompson, and Jeff Smith. Film Art: An Introduction. 1979. 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2020.

Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory & Criticism. 1974. 8th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.

David, Joel. “Corrigenda & Problematics for Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic.” Ámauteurish! (June 6, 2020).

———. “The Reviewer Reviewed.” Ámauteurish! (December 12, 2015).

Fowler, H.W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Ed. David Crystal. 1926. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Hechler, David. The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988.

Hill, John, and Pamela Church Gibson, eds. The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. “Directives on the Film Business.” 1922. Volume 42 of Lenin Collected Works, October 1917 – March 1923. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971. 388-89.

Longworth, Karina. Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor. Cahiers du Cinema series. London: Phaidon Press, 2013.

Malko, George. “Pauline Kael Wants People to Go to the Movies: A Profile.” Conversations with Pauline Kael. Ed. Will Brantley. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. 15-30.

McCoy, Alfred W. Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State. New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies series. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.

McMahon, James. “Life Is a Great Screenwriter.” Interview with Francis Ford Coppola. The Guardian (December 5, 2020).

Modern Language Association of America. MLA Handbook. 9th ed. New York: MLA, 2021.

Nichols, Bill, ed. Movies and Methods: An Anthology. Vols. 1 & 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976 & 1985.

Rice, Mark. Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2014.

Simon, John. “A Critical Credo.” Private Screenings: Views of the Cinema of the Sixties. New York: Macmillan, 1967. 1-16.

Smith, Zadie. “That Crafty Feeling.” Columbia University Writing Program lecture. The Believer (June 1, 2008).

Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell 2000.

Stam, Robert, and Toby Miller, eds. Film and Theory: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell 2000.

Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Observations on Film Art. At David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema (September 2006 to the present).

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Persistence of Vision

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

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

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

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

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Inklings #3

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

Be prepared to revise constantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Submit or upload your text, then attempt further revisions.

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

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

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

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

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Own your errors.

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

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

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

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

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Careful with claims you make.

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

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

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

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Notes

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

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

What about my actual motives?

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

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Inklings #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Watch and read the necessary texts more than once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You call these writing tips?

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

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Inklings #1

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

There is no such thing as too much preparation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Look inward at your personal motive(s).

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

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

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

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

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

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Insist on the use of basic study tools.

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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But where are the shortcuts?

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

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Turning Point

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

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

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

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Forebearance

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

Francis Ford Coppola[1]

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary

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

Contents [PDF version]
© 2021 by Amauteurish Publishing
All Rights Reserved

Introduction: Forebearance

Turning Point

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

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

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

Persistence of Vision

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

Works Cited

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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

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

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

National Library of the Philippines CIP Data

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

11011ISBN 978-621-96191-7-2

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

791.43702841101111011PN19951101111011P120210039

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

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Positive Criticism (A Learning Program)

Schedule: Open
Venue: Pelikulove website

Email: <joelsky2000@yahoo.com>
Consultation hours: Via prearranged videochat

Faculty Profile:

PhD & MA (as Fulbright scholar) in Cinema Studies, New York University; B.A. Film (cum laude) & A.B. Journalism (cum laude), University of the Philippines (national university); founding Director, University of the Philippines Film Institute; book publications include Manila by Night (an entry in the acclaimed Queer Film Classics series of Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver), The National Pastime, Wages of Cinema (UP Centennial Awardee), Fields of Vision (National Book Awardee), Millennial Traversals (originally a two-issue publication of UNITAS journal), and the forthcoming canon book project (cowritten with Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon) of Summit Media. Articles published in outlets including Southeast Asian Studies, Asian Studies Journal, Asian Journal of Women’s Studies, Humanities Diliman, Journal of Bisexuality, International Journal of Asian Studies, Kritika Kultura, Plaridel, and Manila Review. Member of Modern Language Association of America, Asian Studies Association, Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and Association of Filipino Educators in Korea; Gawad Lingap Sining (Culture-Nurture Awardee) of 2016 Filipino Arts & Cinema International Festival and of the first Glory Awards of the UP College of Mass Communication.

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Lecture Notes:

Film reviews, which evaluate films for the benefit of consumers, are seldom used in film study, since most of the non-Hollywood areas would not be considered or sometimes even rejected by mainstream film commentators. Students of film thus get exposed to a new type of writing, film criticism, which evaluates films not according to whether or not they deserve to be recommended to audiences, but according to how they “play” with film form and tradition, reflect the circumstances of their authors and community, and enact certain programs that have to do with questions of ideologies of society (e.g. class or nation) or of identity (race, gender, sexuality), often with the use of theory. Students who make the adjustment away from judging films as reviewers, in the direction of studying films as social and historical phenomena, will be able to derive a better understanding of the subject, and perhaps even new ways of appreciating new or unusual types of cinema.

11011Film criticism has been undervalued in both media and academe because of the assumption that film is universally appreciated, and therefore anyone can write about it and deserves to air her or his opinion. While this perspective is valid from a sociological standpoint, it has to be balanced with the reality that much of what passes for film commentary comes from individuals who either do not bother to look into the intrinsic qualities of the medium – e.g., the history, aesthetics, semiology, spectatorship, and future applications of film; or who uphold these values, but only and strictly as these have been articulated and prescribed for their contexts of origin, on the always-mistaken assumption that these could have universal applications.

11011Since the inception of the medium over a century ago, film theory has developed to the point where it pervades all audiovisual media discourse, including new media. This provides an advantage for young students to immediately recognize “pure” film theory when they study it, but it also makes it more difficult today to identify where film ideas may be headed. Film has become too diffuse an idea, present everywhere and therefore situated nowhere in particular. What can be done instead is the study of an alternate history of film theory, tracing its origin in pre-filmic (so-called technological-deterministic) discourse, through debates on form and realism, to modern and postmodern phases in its development, with the concept of power relations, as developed in feminist and gender theory, constantly foregrounded. In this way the student will be able to see that the proper study and critical application of contemporary film theory will not involve films (or films alone), but the wider spectrum of all available media, and even of society itself. This course will proceed from this critical evaluation of film criticism and provide practical ways in which writing on film can serve as both an effective elaboration of one’s responses as well as a juncture from which intersectional discourses in other fields can be initiated.

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SYLLABUS

Description:

A training course on film criticism proceeding from principles of theoretical expertise and literary expertise.

Objectives:

By the end of the course, the students should be able:

  1. to evaluate a film text in terms of its formal and sociological properties;
  2. to formulate an analysis of the film’s strengths and/or weaknesses in the interest of furthering contemporary discourse; and
  3. to express this critique in a manner that will attain maximum impact in the Philippine context.

Textbooks:

Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory and Criticism. 1974. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing about Film. 1989. 6th ed. New York: Longman, 2005.

Corrigan, Timothy, and Patricia White. The Film Experience: An Introduction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.

Pramaggiore, Maria, and Tom Wallis. Film: A Critical Introduction. 2005. 2nd ed. London: Laurence King, 2008.

Additional References:

Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. 1979. 7th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003.

Giannetti, Louis. Understanding Movies. 10th ed. 1972. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2004.

Hill, John, and Pamela Church Gibson, eds. The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Phillips, William H. Film: An Introduction. 3rd ed. 1999. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.

Prince, Stephen. Movies and Meaning: An Introduction to Film. 1997. 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.

Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

Websites:

David, Joel. Amauteurish!.

Guerrero, Rafael Ma. (ed.). Readings in Philippine Cinema. Manila: Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1983.

Internet Movie Database. Website prone to error; use with caution.

Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media.

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Teaching Methods:

Lectures; discussion sessions (by special arrangement); homework preparation; final project: opening chapter of an open-access book project.

Grading System:

  • Attendance and recitation – 40%
  • Homework – 30%
  • Final paper – 30%

Schedule:

  • Session 1: Why Study Film Theory?

Content: Why film studies and production training comprise separate tracks; the difficulties and advantages of praxis; brilliant beginnings vs. career longevities; roads not taken in film professions.
Reading: Joel David, “Auteurs & Amateurs: Toward an Ethics of Film Criticism,” UNITAS 93.1 (May 2020): 17-36.
Screenings: Lav Diaz, Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Wacky O Productions, Kayan Productions, Origin8 Media, 2013), c/o Pelikulove.

  • Session 2: How Film was First Regarded

Content: Filmic aspirations and early cinema; Classical Hollywood and its discontents.
Reading: Joel David, “Ethics First,” The National Pastime digital edition (Amauteurish Publishing, 2014).
Screenings: Gregorio Fernandez, Prinsipe Teñoso (LVN Pictures, 1954), available at Citizen Jake on Vimeo; Charlie Chaplin, The Kid (Charles Chaplin Productions, 1921), available at YouTube.

  • Session 3: Post-Classical Shifts in Predigital Cinema

Content: Neorealism, French New Wave, and third cinema.
Readings: Joel David, “Auteur Criticism” and “The Golden Ages of Philippine Cinema,” Book Texts Discourses section (Amauteurish Publishing, 2016).
Screenings: Gregorio Fernandez, Hukom Roldan (LVN Pictures, 1957), available at Citizen Jake on Vimeo; Vittorio de Sica, Miracle in Milan (Produzioni De Sica & Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche, 1951), available at YouTube.

  • Session 4: New Media and the Democratization of Filmmaking & Criticism

Content: Genre principles, postmodern aesthetics, digitalization, and the internet.
Reading: Joel David, “A Lover’s Polemic,” Book Texts Metacriticism section (Amauteurish Publishing, 2016).
Screenings: Gregorio Fernandez, Malvarosa (LVN Pictures, 1958), available at Citizen Jake on Vimeo; Park Chul-soo, 301, 302 (Park Chul-Soo Films Ltd., 1995), available at YouTube (age confirmation required).

  • Session 5: An Approach to Film Coverage

Content: Understanding audience expectations; the orchestration of detail; creating meaning through the world beyond film; the goal of film analysis: articulating meaning; the importance of developing interpretive claims.
Reading: Joel David, “Muzzled Bombardments,” Plaridel 14.2 (November 2017): 221-31.
Browsings: David Bordwell & Kristine Thompson, David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema; Catherine Grant, Film Studies for Free.
Screenings: Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, Indigo Child (Pelikulove, 2017); Zbigniew Rybczynski, The Orchestra (Zbig Vision Ltd., Ex Nihilo Films, & NHK, 1990), available at YouTube.

  • Session 6: Traditional Methods, Contemporary Resources

Content: Close reading, book marking, note-taking, diagramming of print, film, and new-media material.
Reading: Joel David, “Writing Film Commentaries,” a Pelikulove exclusive.
Lecture/Discussions on Drafting, Consulting, Revising, Publishing, including: the effective lead; organization of ideas; conformism or contrarianism; tone, voice, perspective; closure or open-endedness.
Submission of final project proposals with sample review.

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Policies:

  1. The class will be conducted bilingually, in English and Tagalog, with internet research of English-language websites. Recitations, written material, and consultations should similarly be conducted bilingually.
  2. Activities outside the classroom will be assigned occasionally. It is understood that students agree that they are solely and fully responsible for themselves in fulfilling this requirement.
  3. Exercises will be written on MS Word files, letter-size pages with 1-inch margins, with name on the first line, flush left, and the date of the exercise right below. No title required. Texts should be double-spaced. For the final project, the instructor will provide a form during the penultimate (5th) week, to be turned in during the final week.

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Á!


Cold Word Wars: Philippine Film as a Critical Activity

This is the full text of the Filipino Arts & Cinema International’s first Gawad Lingap Sining Lecture, held at the City College of San Francisco’s Diego Rivera Theater, famed for the muralist’s Pan American Unity, a fresco originally completed in 1940 for the Golden Gate International Exposition. The lecture was delivered on October 18, 2016, as part of that year’s FACINE Filipino International Cine Festival’s opening ceremony. To jump to later sections, please click here for: Critical Thinking; Self-Colonization; Differences; Effective Expression; and Notes.

diego-rivera-stage
(Photo courtesy of Daniel Park)

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

11011I had originally planned to look into what we may describe as trouble spots in the course of the development of film criticism in the Philippines, but as I understand, this venue, the City College of San Francisco, has both a film program and a Philippine Studies program. I also read up once more some of the basic texts, mostly on literary criticism by Terry Eagleton, but these seemed too distant and quaint today, except for a fairly recent text titled Outside Literature, by Tony Bennett[1] – the Australian professor, not the Italian-American crooner. In the end I decided to just confine my lecture to the less-obscure controversies that people in this setting might be able to recognize. Not to go too far off-tangent, but if you’ve been monitoring developments in the Philippines, you might have noticed that people there have been polarized since the election campaign period that started a year ago, and the situation has never eased up, and probably even worsened. There are two main voices: one, the newly empowered, or some might say re-empowered, people in the administration of Rodrigo Duterte; and another, the group of people identified with the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III, who see themselves as marginalized by the present government.

11011For me, the predicament is a simple one. If you object to certain or all of the current government’s policies, could you still be called a supporter of the Duterte administration? The way that the existing discourse has worked out, the answer is no. Either you’re pro-Duterte and accept everything he had set out to do, including discarding due process for drug suspects and restoring Ferdinand Marcos to a position of prestige, or you object to these two things, plus maybe Duterte’s propensity for cursing and appointing some less-than-stellar officials, and advocate for his impeachment so he can be replaced with a more “acceptable” option. Now I’ve witnessed the overthrow of two Philippine Presidents in the past, and the aftermath has never been lovely – sometimes it even gets worse in some ways than before. But I also cannot abide people getting killed just because of a problem that is really social and psychological in nature, and that has been solved in other countries only by radically turning its premise upside down and legalizing drug use. But try insisting loudly enough, say on Facebook or Twitter, that you want this and other government policies revised or discarded, but by the same government, not by a new one. I and similarly minded friends share the same stories of experiencing bullying of various degrees – from both sides, the pro-government and the anti-Duterte factions.

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Critical Thinking

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

11011So when you engage in the practice of criticism, you actually benefit yourself and your readers, if your goal is to keep growing as a practitioner. But you also have the potential of applying your skills to a wider cross-section of the body politic, evaluating issues of varying complexities, according to how the solutions can best benefit the widest and most needful sectors of society. Just close your eyes and imagine you’re watching a multidirectorial melodramatic saga by Lino Brocka, with multi-stranded plotlines from Ishmael Bernal, focused on the dispossessed as Brillante Mendoza does, and with an endless running time courtesy of Lav Diaz; that would be a great and scary and funny and tragic movie, and that would also be Philippine politics, or maybe even American politics, who knows.

11011We’re all aware that discussions of politics are always in danger of intensifying without ever being resolved, so let me pretend to be subtle and diplomatic, and switch gears without warning, hoping that no one notices. Regarding our topic, Philippine film criticism, the first thing that I think any entry-level person should be aware of appears to be something that many practitioners lack. They can’t be blamed for it because the issue remains shrouded in the mist of colonial history. But it would be indispensable if we were to devise a means of distinguishing the practice from its global counterparts. What I refer to here is the fact that film, in particular, was originally introduced during the late Spanish era, in the 1890s, by investors who wanted to turn a profit, as they still do today. But when the Spaniards were shortly thereafter replaced by the Americans, the fast-evolving media of photography, and later film, were deliberately deployed by colonial officials, led by Interior Secretary Dean Worcester, to rationalize the colonization project.

11011Worcester and the periodicals that reviewed his output, including the New York Times, participated in this acknowledgment of the righteousness of the US occupation of the Philippines.[2] This is of special historical import, because when you read up on state cultural policy for cinema, this detail is overlooked in favor of a later development, when Vladimir Lenin declared that film would be the means for the Soviet Union to propagandize for international socialism. Thus when we speak of critical commentary on turn-of-the-century Philippine-produced photographic and cinematographic products, we are really talking about a perspective with two characteristics that were typical for that situation: first, it assumes the supremacy of visual technology; and second, it considers the interest of the Philippine subjects, who provide the raw material for these products, as incidental at best and insignificant at worst.

11011I wish to emphasize that this situation, which I’d call sordid if you’ll allow me to be subjective, applied to both the production of film and the output of criticism. And from over a hundred years ago, I would like to abruptly bring us all to the present, where film had just ended its reign as the country’s primary means of entertainment, its “national pastime,” to use the title I provided for my first book. It was so successful that at one point, during the 1980s, Filipinos appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most avid movie-goers in the world.[3] As an industry, the medium was always one of the first to bounce back during the several periods of wartime and peacetime upheavals, even after the IMF-World Bank Asian crisis of the late ’90s demolished most of the country’s medium- and small-scale industries. In fact Philippine cinema’s latest recovery is a testament to its people’s ability to make do with whatever resources are still accessible to native practitioners. Just as the Soviet filmmakers responding to Lenin’s call turned a shortage of film stock into the rapidly intercut juxtapositions that we identify with Soviet montage, so did Filipino filmmakers confront the prohibitive cost of celluloid production by simply junking it and making do with far more affordable video technology, initially setting up their own projectors in film theaters just to be able to screen their work.

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Self-Colonization

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

11011In that way, and at that moment, we managed to achieve American self-colonization, producing cultural artifacts that made use of the local audience’s real lives as raw material, but which were never intended for their own consumption and appreciation. The complicity of contemporary film commenters was troubling enough so that the then-chair of the original critics circle went on record to denounce them, preferring to call them film bloggers rather than critics, and demonized as well their propensity for scrounging for perks, in the form of free trips to foreign film competitions, as members of the jury (Tolentino 184).[4] I use the past tense in describing this state of affairs, because the situation has peaked, and with that peak, its possible closure has become discernible. This peak actually occurred in recent months, when Filipino entries in the so-called Big Three European film festivals won major prizes, including best film at one point. The Woman Who Left, the film by Lav Diaz that won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion prize, starred the former President and CEO of the country’s biggest film and TV conglomerate.[5] Diaz inscribed his own career circle, since his early films were produced by what was then the Philippines’s most successful studio, Regal Films, before he sought fuller autonomy via the combination of independent financing and digital production that I mentioned earlier.

11011For me, the lesson here is an affirmation of what I had always believed in: that among all possible types of professionals, artists (including writers) have the capacity to change for the better, with the rest of society and the world waiting to testify, to act as witnesses. Critics, when they’re lucky, should be in the position to herald the good news, or to demand for it when necessary. As you can sense, I’ve made another supposedly subtle segue into the ethics of film criticism, and wasted the previous minutes on a necessary but too-lengthy introduction. Don’t do that unless you’ve been granted exclusive control over a microphone and a guarantee that no questions will be asked right afterward. But honestly, if anyone were to ask me right now what she or he needs to prepare to get into film criticism, I would first respond by answering: what for? Is there an urgent need for it, a life-and-death situation that has the potential to turn tragic if another option, another desire intervenes and replaces this first one?

11011Like all defensive responses, this one reflects on me, the questioner, rather than the one being questioned. I was probably lucky in starting out in criticism before formal film training became a possibility in the Philippines, and figured out all the other necessities along the way. I was naïve enough, and the field was new enough, so that I could take stock of existing samples and say, “I could certainly write better than many of these people.” I was determined to become conversant with film theory and history, on my own if necessary, and at the very least become known as a film critic who could outwrite anyone else within the limited and insular circle of local practitioners. When I was invited to join the formal critics’ organization while barely out of college, that indicated for me that I’d been taking the right steps. Yet almost as soon as I’d signed the proverbial membership card, I’d taken my first misstep: an inordinately harsh denunciation of a commercial exercise by Lino Brocka. Manila being the tiny capital city that believes itself to be larger than what it is, I inevitably bumped into Brocka within the same week the review came out, and made the acquaintance as well of several other practitioners, a couple of whom also happened to be concurrent members of the critics’ circle.

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Differences

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

11011Second, the ability of colleagues who can productively engage in metacritical discussions, where we critique one another’s criticism, is a rarity even among fellow critics, but an invaluable treasure when it comes along. During the period of my membership, the most important sessions I had were not the ones where the group determined the fate and reputation of the community of artists it claimed to support, by selecting individual award winners and causing resentment and disappointment among the rest. Instead, it was the moments when Professor Bien Lumbera, then and now its most senior member, would discuss with me the process of writing critical commentary, and explain the nuances of tone, diction, insight, structure, and rhetoric. To be honest, I found more of this type of rapport after I left the group, when I made the acquaintance of Mau Tumbocon here as well as a few other critics, and expanded my network to include classmates in graduate school and students at the film institute of the national university. I may as well also qualify that, among people capable of collegial interactions, differences can sometimes transmute into serious disputes, aggravated by the various side issues that tend to be raised by aggrieved parties in both camps. But since critical activity is as much reactive to subsequent social, aesthetic, ideological, and technological developments, even as it seeks to influence these phenomena in return, we find ourselves hailing the people we once thought we had given up for good, just as I had tended to grow apart from some groups with whom I once thought I could share long-term visions.

11011Third, and perhaps most unexpected though thoroughly commonsensical when you ponder it over, is the humbling discovery that critical thinking is not the exclusive province of critics. The greatest artists throughout history, in all corners of the world, had made that discovery for themselves, and their special gift to critics is the difficult-yet-productive exercise we get when we undertake a study of their body of work. I was already aware that Ishmael Bernal, for example, was conducting an intensive and radical reworking of the medium of film for Philippine subject matter and audiences, before I even learned that he was also once a film critic. This ties in with my insistence on literary polish and innovation for critical practitioners. I cannot count how many times I had cringed when I read critics complaining about a film’s lack of elegance and creativity, in the kind of writing that would be the very exemplification of the disappointments that their authors wanted to point out.

11011The last matter I wish to raise about criticism is the one that causes a crucial but often unnoticed division among practitioners themselves. I first got an inkling of it after I published my second book, essentially a more specialized anthology of my reviews supplemented by a basic but extensive critical study and a few canon-forming attempts. I was worried that reviewers might complain about how obsolete the issues it was raising were, since my intention was to demonstrate that those critical exercises first needed to be done right before they could be abandoned in favor of more current approaches. Instead, the most extensive local-daily reaction dwelled on the fact that some of the words I used went beyond journalistic-level samples. When I speculated what the reviewer must have thought about film writing, I concluded that he actually had a laudatory assumption: that discussions on film don’t have to be complicated, because film is accessible to a lot of people to begin with.

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Effective Expression

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

11011There are two points I could never over-emphasize in this regard. One is that the use of theory in writing reviews may or may not be foregrounded, but it should be capable of providing a framework for the critic’s take on the film or films being discussed. Another is that this framework is not the usual operationalizing of correctly understood concepts that we learn to do in school. Theory, as our fellow YCC founder Patrick D. Flores put it, is a matter that should be engaged, not applied (193).[8] This means that while the critic may explain her harsh or dismissive take on a film by referring to the underlying principles of a theory, the critic should also ensure that she had managed to evaluate the theory in terms of its appositeness, relevance, explanatory potential, progressiveness, and other questions essential to what we may call theory appreciation. Too often, we come across readings of non-Western cultural samples where the critic has regurgitated recent theory and wound up displaying her grasp of sometimes new ideas at the expense of prejudging the native product.

11011I would like to end by saying that while I may have accumulated this collection of insights on what an effective film critic would be like, I would be lying to you if I denied that I sometimes fall short of one or more of the ideals that I recounted in the course of this lecture. I also look forward to learning a few more tricks along the way, if I can still have the good fortune of discovering them. The biggest misgiving I had with this recognition is that from hereon, there would be less room for me to commit mistakes, the source of some of my most-enduring lessons. But then I could also have a better platform by which I could tell the current and forthcoming generations of Filipino film critics to prepare as best as they could, and once they have taken stock of their preparation, to take a step or two further into what they think is unexplored, probably even questionable, territory. Be well-conditioned, but don’t forget to take risks. People will give you a once-over because you’re dealing with a medium that’s close to their hearts. Make sure you’re ready to give in return more than what they expect, not only because they might appreciate the effort, but because you owe yourself a useful lesson each time you send out your contribution to our now-growing stock of cultural discourse.

11011Thank you for paying attention. I wish you all the best experience before, during, and after watching movies.

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Notes

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

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

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

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

[4] Rolando B. Tolentino, “Hinahanap, Kaya Nawawala” [Searched For, Therefore Missing], 182-84; in Patrick F. Campos (ed.), “A Round Table Discussion on Poetics and Practice of Film Criticism,” Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society 13.1 (2016): 149-217.

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

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

[7] John Simon, “A Critical Credo,” Private Screenings: Views of the Cinema of the Sixties (New York: Macmillan, 1967): 1-16.

[8] Patrick F. Campos (ed.), “A Round Table Discussion on Poetics and Practice of Film Criticism,” Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society 13.1 (2016): 148-84.

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