Tag Archives: Profession

Book Texts – Critic in Academe

The following comprises the original introduction of this Q&A exchange as it appeared in the April 4, 1990, issue of National Midweek (pp. 20-22, 46):

When Bienvenido Lumbera’s candidacy for the directorship of the University of the Philippines Film Center was announced, he reacted with typical modesty; at least, he told himself, this could be another opportunity for him to carry out some of his proposals for film study and research in the Philippines.

Such self-effacement contradistinguished a critic and scholar whose reputation in certain sober circles in academe and the film industry is almost legendary; this, plus his clarity of purpose, clinched for him the highly visible and passionately contested UPFC post. A professor at the Filipino department of the UP College of Arts and Letters, Lumbera, who holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Indiana University, headed the English and Philippine Studies departments of the Ateneo de Manila University until his stint in prison as a Marcos-era political detainee. He has authored three books on Philippine culture – Revaluation: Essays on Philippine Literature, Cinema, and Popular Culture ([Manila]: Index, 1984), Tagalog Poetry 1570-1898: Tradition and Influences in Its Development (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University, 1986); and Abot-Tanaw: Sulyap at Suri ng Nagbabagong Kultura at Lipunan (Quezon City: Linangan ng Kamalayang Makabansa, 1987), all winners of National Book Awards – and holds a number of distinctions for his other creative and critical output. Now pushing 60, Bien, as he is fondly called, is regarded as the pioneer in modern criticism in Philippine literature, theater, and popular culture in general, but most especially in film.

This interview was originally conducted in two Taglish sessions at his poster-wallpapered UP Faculty Center cubicle, between breaks from his hectic schedule as teacher, center director, occasional lecturer, and creative writer-cum-cultural consultant. Lost in the transcription are the subject’s avuncularity and clearheaded delivery of answer, although an infectious (and youthful) enthusiasm for topics dealing with cultural and criticism, booby-trapped with an ironic sense of humor, can still be detected.

Bien is married to the former Cynthia Nograles, with whom he has three daughters.

To read the original, untranslated transcript of the interview, please click here.

In your early years, it seems you were also doing critiques in other areas aside from film.

I actually started as a student of literature. Then, because of my involvement in the nationalist movement, I slowly realized that many Filipinos are more influenced by cultural forms that cannot be classified as literature – such as komiks, television, and film.

The fact that you have recognized the reality of change – does this mean that you had to adjust your original perceptions as well?

The first time I wrote about film – this was in the early 1960s – I attempted to explain why Filipino films could not be as good as foreign films. Initially I thought that was what was originally described in the circles in which I moved as catering to the taste of the uneducated masses. Like, for example, I would look for what I called the logic of irony. There were only one or two films out of maybe about eight or ten that talked about which I thought answered my demands – Kadenang Putik (1960, dir. Conrado Conde & Cesar Gallardo) and, I think, Huwag Mo Akong Limutin (1960, dir. Gerardo de Leon). Later I realized, if my criteria could allow only a few films to be considered valid for discussion, there must be something askew. Fortunately, by now I think I’ve gotten over this.

Are there certain other things that you wanted then that have been realized today?

I think now we see the application of theory, largely drawn from Western theory, in the films that are shown. When some people view films, they go beyond regarding these as mere entertainment. Films now are being studied for how they reflect culture and society, whether consciously or directly or not.

What would be some other things that disappoint you at present?

One of the things that I hoped would happen would be for more Filipino movies to be of the same weight and quality as those that were produced in 1976. My expectation was that after all, since the industry had been able to produce these films before, perhaps in the coming years more would come out – no longer exclusively for elite viewers or with overt artistic intentions, but with technical polish, thematic sophistication, or subtleties of performance whether in writing, direction, or acting as part of local industry ethics. I think the crucial context here is the system that prevailed during the 1950s: filmmakers were each committed to working for a single studio, so even if their projects were not all highly intelligent or aesthetic, they’d still have the chance to do different types of films in one year.

But there also seems to be a form of studio domination today.

Seiko, Viva, Regal have what they call a stable of directors and actors, but when it comes to giving out assignments, it’s like: “We’ve finally contracted Phillip [Salvador] and we have to do a movie, but what’s hot nowadays? Action? Then let’s make an action star out of Phillip.” No longer do people consider where an actor or actress or director excels, unlike before, when there was more latitude [for one’s capabilities].

Now I’m not saying that Doña Sisang [LVN’s Narcisa de Leon], Doc Perez [Sampaguita’s Jose Perez], [or] Doña Adela [Premiere’s Adela Santiago] was interested only in art, but perhaps during the 1950s businessmen had more confidence in the industry: “If our movie flops, that’s all right. We have a big production scheduled next that will surely draw in the crowds.” Such a procedure essentially is a rational kind of capitalist thinking. I believe at present what we have is a highly manipulative system, essentially exploitive in its use of filmmaking talent, and I’m tempted to call it unprincipled in handling out assignments.

Do you think then we should make moves to initiate a return to the old ways?

No, I do not envision a return to the studio system in the 1950s. Even in the States that arrangement is gone for good; but when that happened, the so-called independent filmmakers were able to do films which had earlier been difficult to produce because of commercial dictates, and standards of technical excellence were carried over. In our case, the independents did not have sufficient equipment to go around, so whoever had larger capital could rent the better machines and facilities, and those who could cut costs did so. Gone are the productions that could instill pride in the industry. For example, if we mention [Regal’s] Mother Lily’s production of Sister Stella L. (1984, dir. Mike de Leon), I’m sure what she remembers is the big financial loss incurred by that movie, and whatever else it achieved, she’s determined not to make that kind of project again. That kind of perspective can’t be helped among those who invest their money, but neither does it contribute to enthusiasm and experimentation and pride in what our filmmakers do.

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But isn’t there a continuity between the system at present and the one that came out with so many quality products during the ’70s?

The ’70s were a conjuncture of several factors. The censors demanded to see a complete script before they could give a permit for shooting, so they could scrutinize film projects as early as the pre-production stage. Studios turned to journalist and creative writers in order to be able to impress the censors. Young filmmakers and writers saw here an opportunity to break into the industry and inject some seriousness in terms of content. Then: “Too bad, these movies don’t make money” – so producers backtracked.

But from that point on, the writers and directors who were able to get in already had a foothold. They’re still disadvantaged at present by the fact that the producers have become safe players. Plus, taxes, both national and local, have increased considerably. This is why producers always aim at having megahits, since only then can they hope to profit from film production. No longer do we have modest pictures that are not going to realize a lot of income but won’t flop entirely either.

Other industry people say that this decline in the profitability of film is just part of an international trend – what is known as the video revolution.

I think that’s definitely true in First-World countries. Few Japanese now watch their own films because most of their stars appear on TV shows. In our case, TV probably doesn’t have the same reach as the movies. Those away from city centers, who’d commute to the province during weekends and watch a movie before leaving – I’m sure they constitute a large number of moviegoers in this country.

So is it in this context – of hopefulness because the masses still patronize our own films, and on the other hand the desperation of the industry in surviving – that you expect academe to step in make changes?

Academe cannot intervene actively and has no power to compel capitalists to make better movies. All that can be done – on this, I can speak with some degree of certainty – is for the industry to be taken seriously, its products evaluated regardless of aesthetic quality, and a report given of what these products tell us about Philippine society.

Wouldn’t you say there has been a trend, at least in politics, to link up with academic institutions – something that the industry tolerates inasmuch as this doesn’t have anything to do with business anyway?

The government doesn’t really have any profound understanding of the workings and implications of moviemaking. They get bothered by films that they think will disturb people, like Orapronobis (1989, dir. Lino Brocka) and, in the past, Batch ’81 (1982, dir. Mike de Leon) and City After Dark (a.k.a. Manila by Night; 1980, dir. Ishmael Bernal), but these are isolated cases. In their consciousness films are produced so that capitalists can make a killing, and so the government should be in on the profits. Those are the simple facts of thinking among bureaucrats about the industry.

The creativity of our filmmakers during the Marcos regime contrasts with those in other countries who benefited more from political freedom; would you say that this indicates a peculiarity in the Filipino psychology?

I think what happened here was not just a matter of individual initiatives on the part of filmmakers. The artist’s discontent, if not assisted by others from outside his circles, becomes a private protest, since she tends more to reflect upon herself than to go out and join groups. I guess that’s what happened in the case of Mike de Leon’s films: Mike is a very private person, as can be attested to by those who observe the local film scene. But his outputs leave no doubt that he has some political consciousness operating, and I would attribute that simply to the fact he knew that – it sounds corny, but – hindi siya nag-iisa [he wasn’t alone], others were protesting and organizing. Assuming a situation where there is no movement, Mike de Leon might just stay put; I doubt if he would have the inclination to put into film his discontent with the situation.

How would you compare the present crop of filmmakers with the previous one?

With Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, and Eddie Romero then, you could separate their narrative since their films purposefully set out to tell a story. But if we consider Peque Gallaga, Laurice Guillen, Marilou Diaz-Abaya – offhand, I notice, they give emphasis to specific qualities of film. You don’t remember them for the materials that they handle, but for what they did to the medium, like Laurice’s attempt at trying to tell different versions [of the same incident] in Salome (1981). Even in [Guillen’s first film] Kasal (1980) there was that kind of exploration of levels of reality and motivations of characters. It seems like their group prescinded from the overtly philosophical, political telling of material; what becomes immediately obvious is the attention they lavish on details that one finds in reality. It’s not so much the material anymore but the approach to reality that matters.

Would you say this has had an effect on film practice?

I would say it is an advancement. They must have seen what Lino and Ishmael had accomplished in the past, so they try to go beyond. It is hoped that there would be an integration of the kind of film work done by the earlier masters in the direction of a more complex use of narrative, if possible, in the future. But more and more, I think the old approach to seriousness in film practice, where the artist does a narrative that has a line that can be easily plotted out, is becoming a thing of the past.

What was the role of film critics in this kind of progression?

Nothing, because you see critics –

– were ignored by the artist?

Yes. And besides, strictly speaking, we cannot talk about intensive critical activity in the local film world since outlets are not available, and critics do not work full time, they dabble only when the occasion arises. That is something that will have to be worked at, possibly in academe: to create activity more productive of critiques and reviews.

Would it be possible to say that Filipino film artists have assumed the functions that should have been performed for them by critics, in terms of evaluating their own work and integrating the lessons in their succeeding output?

Actually, artists are the ones who set the direction for what they want to be doing – assuming that they live in a society which provides them with a sense of history. But the act of taking the cue from critics – I don’t think that has ever happened here.

I remember, in the Manunuri, the time when we had some feedback from the industry saying that the only reason why some of us were into criticism was because we wanted to break eventually into the industry.

I don’t think that’s something that should be begrudged any film critic. I suspect that that was engineered by publicists who had taken advantage of their position in order to advance themselves in the industry. One reason why a person goes into analysis of film is that she’s interested in whatever it is that makes a good film. I think the real criticism is that some people go into criticism so that producers will take notice, then they’d say bad things about certain movies so that the producers will mollify them.

Would you say that the ideal balance between theory and practice was the same reason why you maintained some creative output – doing translations and librettos, writing for the stage, and performing occasionally?

In my case, I never made a strict separation between the creative part of me and the analytic part. My writing for the theater derives from an original urge to do creative writing when I was in college and immediately after. Then I got into teaching, so I began to do more criticism, more history. But essentially, I guess I saw myself as a creative artist.

Some practitioners, I heard, were also into criticism before they went into active industry work.

Ishmael [Bernal] wrote some articles on film, now I remember, for the magazine Balthazar.

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What would be the qualities of a good film critic?

She likes movies; she would have seen a lot of films, not only local but also foreign ones. She has a good eye – meaning if she sees something on the screen, she’s capable of recalling the details and immediately relating the elements of particular image. And also, of course, she knows how to write: her command of style should enable her to communicate her insights. Very important, in my view, is her respect for her intended audience. Once a critic assumes that only she knows whereof she speaks and the audience should be content with whatever her pronouncements are, she’ll make an offensive impression on the reader.

Mel Chionglo once told me that a liberal arts preparation is crucial to a filmic sensibility.

Yes, I think it’s very important that the writer can fall back on a fund of insights and information from previous exposure to the arts. Because if all one can rely on is one’s personal prejudices, the narrow concept of art that can be derived from reading some books, one can’t provide any substantial commentary for even the worst kind of products.

One time when I was speaking at the [Cultural Center of the Philippines] about theater, I said – I gave a number of dos and don’ts – that the writer must not be imprisoned by cuteness or katarayan [snark]. I think that’s a very strong tendency when one in beginning to write, when you fall in love with manner, an expression, a point that you want to make, and you put that across and sacrifice the object you’re talking about. I went through that experience when I was younger. Time magazine in the 1950s had very elegant stylists, so their reviews were always quotable, memorable.

How much further does local criticism have to go before it can assume a significant role in the filmmaking industry?

It’s not so much criticism that has to change but media which has to be more receptive to serious comment on film – meaning to say, not just anymore can be made to become a film reviewer, and the publications themselves have to be prepared to print serious articles that might offend the [advertising] producer. Then there also has to be an adjustment in the economic structure to enable people to become professional critics – like, you’re a newsperson whose beat is the movies, and your reviews are now considered the results of the discharging of your responsibilities. That will not come to be until the country has achieved a certain degree of prosperity, when movie writers won’t need to do press releases or hack-write for actors in order to make a decent living.

You’re implying that theorizing in film will also have to wait, since the practice of film criticism will take some time before it can flourish.

Not wait in the sense of postponing theoretical or critical activity, but accepting that no reasonable compensation can be offered at the moment. You can’t expect to survive on criticism, that the industry will appreciate and accommodate your actuations, and that the rest of society will support what you’re trying to accomplish.

Isn’t your scenario rather grim?

[Smilingly.] Really, there’s no other word for it. It’s a grim world that the Filipino critic lives in. So the fewer illusions she has about the viability of her profession, the better for her.

Do you think we’ll be able to realize a theory on film that we can call our own?

Well, not in my lifetime, because I only have a few more years to live. Right now we have not yet come up with a definitive film history, and you need history in order to be able to propose or suggest a theory of film. The fact that LVN could show a lot of its old films, and Sampaguita also has some of its own left – these are good signs, these are the texts that students will study. From such a study maybe the beginnings of a theory can be proposed; there’s no other substitute for this procedure. When I saw some films in the 1950s and even earlier in the late ’40s, I was watching not as a critic or even as a student of film, I was just an ordinary fan who followed the films of certain actors and actresses whom I liked. When I look back, I simply think of one as a movie in which Oscar Moreno appeared, another in which Paraluman played this kind of role. It was not until the 1970s that I began to think of film as a field of study. For instance, I once saw something by Gerry de Leon, Isumpa Mo, Giliw (1947). Among the movies of the past that I vividly recall, that was it – [it featured] Elsa Oria, Angel Esmeralda, Fely Vallejo. I found it very moving. But I remember only certain moments and highlights, so I cannot discuss the totality of that film as a work of art. That’s a problem with film, it’s such an ephemeral experience, and once the text is lost, it’s difficult to reconstruct.

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Book Texts – The Fantasy World of Rey de la Cruz

The surge of renewed interest in the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of too-young Pepsi Paloma in 1985 has still not raised any eyebrows regarding what subsequently happened to her rabble-rousing manager, Rey de la Cruz. Shot dead in the optical clinic where he lived, de la Cruz had deliberately cultivated an unsavory reputation – but mainly in his showbiz affairs. When Communist party renegade Felimon “Popoy” Lagman was also slain by unidentified assassins, the Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino, which he led, mentioned that an arrest warrant for him still had to be served for the murder of de la Cruz. So the question of who killed de la Cruz, unlike the issue of whether poor Pepsi was murdered, appears to have been resolved, but only because his supposed killer can no longer attest to or deny the charge. [This article originally appeared in the Business Day supplement New Day (October 6, 1986: 12, 14), with the unqualified support and encouragement of the section editor, Daisy Catherine L. Mandap, who now heads the Hong Kong-based Sun publication; an earlier interview with Rey de la Cruz, along with other star-builders, appears here.]

New Day Ray de la Cruz

A tall leather chair behind an appropriately imposing table provides film personality Rey de la Cruz, incidentally Doctor of Optometry, with a suitable position from which to survey prospective applicants, patients, and interviewers who get to sit on depressed and low-backed receiving chairs. “I have always been a star-builder,” he smiles beatifically, “even when I was still a student. Everything you see here, without exception, comes from the blood, sweat, and tears I invested in my work in the movies.”

“Everything” I took to include an entire floor space of a relatively tall building in the Lilliputian backside of Quiapo, two blocks near the subject’s famed optical clinic, where a rugged male attendant directs correctly credentialed curiosity-seekers like me to search the doctor’s residence downstreet. “You won’t miss it,” he assures me, and sure enough, the first building that seems to assert an air of dignity in this polluted part of the district yields Rey de la Cruz’s name, and nothing else, for the fifth-floor portion of its directory.

The address where de la Cruz holds court will immediately impress the outsider with its overabundance of the trappings of fast accumulated wealth. A pair of gossiping old women, an alert girl Friday, a half-dressed teenage kid, and some children quietly at play make sure that you get ushered into the right parlor, instead of the kitchen, bathroom, or private chambers where, de la Cruz clarifies later, starlets Lampel Cojuangco and Mishelle Zobel, his latest acquisitions – rather, alagas, reside.

Distinctions

Dr. de la Cruz starts out by showing a recent issue of Asia magazine, which featured him in a sidebar on an article on the local bold-movie trend. “I was also voted ‘Most Controversial Guest of the Year’ in See-True[1] – he points to a plaque on a side table – “and was interviewed for Channel 2’s Variety program as well as another international magazine.”

Then he quickly gets to the point. “I don’t understand why people take my controversial status against me. I provide a living for my discoveries, I give the masa the entertainment they want, and I make a living in the process – ano’ng masama duon? I even agreed to become barangay captain of Quiapo to be able to render more and systematic service to my fellowmen, and then a nuisance like Polly Cayetano questions my appointment, charges me in court for exploitation of minors, and calls me a pimp on the air. Sa dami ng sumasakay sa akin, kailangang mag-rationalize ako, otherwise matagal na sana akong nawalan ng pag-asa.”

Sooner or later it becomes clear to even the most casual observer that the very subject of Rey de la Cruz may require some rationalizing too. I had interviewed him a half-decade ago for an omnibus write-up on the state of star-building in the country[2] and, in contrast to pros like Jesse Ejercito and Douglas Quijano, he had seemed much more guarded and tentative way back then.

Marami na akong na-build up,” he continues, “and each time na me kumakalas sa akin, I’d tell myself tama na, ayoko na. And then me bagong dumarating, me responsibilidad na naman ako, balik na naman sa star-building.”

At this point he cannot seem to resist a digression. “Tulad nung case ni Lala Montelibano – hindi ko naman intensyon na mang-iskandalo. I heard she wanted to break away from me, so when I learned she was appearing in See-True, I presented her with her real mother, as if to tell her, ‘We are all responsible for other people in our lives, so don’t forget whom you are responsible for.’ E siguro, her adoptive mother thought the real mother was there to get back Lala, di pati yung thirty-percent commission niya sa bata e mawawala, kaya ayun, nagkagulo na.”

Although aware that the incident has generated a generous amount of public outrage, de la Cruz will admit that at the most “I tell only white lies, in the interest of promoting a movie. Sino naman ba’ng hindi gumagawa nuon? Pero if ever I resort to a gimmick, ginigimikan ko lang ang totoo. Example: yung Tondo-girl gimmick ko ke Myrna Castillo, maraming nagalit doon dahil hindi raw kapani-paniwala na me ganung kaganda sa slum area. Nag-white lie na ako nung pino-promote yung launching movie niya, when I said na me tattoo siya sa boobs, pero it turned out na mas effective yung gimmick ko kesa sa promotion nung pelikula.”

In the long run, he has seen to it that, as far as he’s concerned, only good comes out of whatever vulgarities he foists upon the public to capture their attention. “Hindi alam ng marami,” he explains, “na behind all the publicity, I train my discoveries to become model citizens. Lahat ng social graces ini-introduce ko sa kanila. Pati sa acting, me workshop sila conducted at my expense, exclusively for them.” He proudly points out that two of his female stars have attained well-earned reputations as serious actresses, even though one of them – Rio Locsin – had a painful and public falling-out with him, and another – Sarsi Emmanuelle – has been having difficulty in sustaining her popularity because of alleged professional indifference.

The JQ Connection

“If you still cannot take what I’m doing,” he says between chuckles, “blame Joe Quirino.” As his journalism professor at the Manuel L. Quezon University, the inimitable JQ took him away by introducing him to Mars Ravelo and Jose “Doc” Perez. The former may account for his propensity in plotting komiks-like twists and turns to publicize his wards, but it is the Sampaguita Pictures mogul he credits for teaching him “the ABCs of star-building. All in all Doc gave me ten valuable tips, all of them confidential.”

That was twenty years ago, when the Stars ’66 batch of discoveries had a tantalizing effect on him, coming as he did “fresh from a small town in Cagayan, where I was the seventh among eleven children; ako lang ang bakla, ako lang ang napadpad sa showbiz, at ako lang,” he finishes with relish, “ang nakapagpaaral sa twenty-five na kamag-anak ko, some of whom are now big-timers in the States.”

He strokes a thinning crop of hair and directs his professorial mien toward a forever-gone era of innocence, of roses and lollipops and Zandro Zamora. “I was only twenty when I started out. I had ten thousand pesos, all my savings, to begin with, so I bought my first car, a second-hand Triumph Herald, para maging karapat-dapat kay Zandro Zamora. Bini-build up ko siya pero nasira ang ulo ko sa kanya, masyado ako naging possessive. We parted ways as friends – if he ever considered me a friend – pero since then babae na lang ang kadalasang bini-build up ko. I get too involved with my men, and then they get involved with my female discoveries, as in the case of Gil Guerrero and Myrna Castillo. People get the impression tuloy na pinapares-pares ko yung mga alaga ko.”

After he made it big with Rio Locsin in the mid-’70s, he launched Myrna Castillo (initially as Rio Locsin II, to replace the then already-gone original) and, after she paired off with Guerrero – only to lately return to de la Cruz – he launched his first batch of female starlets. Because of their literally commercialized designations they became known collectively as the “softdrink beauties”: Coca Nicolas, Sarsi Emmanuelle, and the tragic Pepsi Paloma, who figured in a messy rape case (capped by an exploitation vehicle) before she allegedly took her own life. Introduced along with them was what de la Cruz describes as “the only uncola, Myra Manibog.” Then the “hard-drink beauties” followed – Remy Martin, Chivas Regal, Vodka Zobel, and Brandy Ayala; only the last, according to de la Cruz, “has survived in showbiz. The rest are in Japan earning two thousand dollars a month each as live entertainers.”

Trendsetting

De la Cruz’s arrival as a promo personality was accorded a dubious form of flattery during the early ’80s when his concept of launching discoveries in batches was imitated. Into the movie pages (as well as a few actual productions) marched the “street beauties,” who sported such throw-away appellations as Ayala Buendia, Aurora Boulevard, Remedios Malate, Lerma Morayta, and Bridget Jones. A parade of pulchritudinous hopefuls has been following suit since, assuming de la Cruz-inspired sobriquets like Lyka Ugarte, Claudia Zobel (another tragic waste), and, in keeping up with his latest batch, Cristina Crisol and Elsa Enrile.

Yes, he has decided to contribute his share to the political awakening of the country by presenting, on the heels of the runaway Lala Montelibano, the “revolutionary beauties,” complete with farcically flippant anecdote: “Nagkita-kita raw sila sa EDSA during the revolution, hindi na makauwi sa dami ng tao, so they decided to stay together with the rest of people power.” An enumeration of what sound like noms de guerre, instead of screen names, follows, showing that by now, the guy has crossed the line between wordplay and downright irreverence: “Aida Dimaporo, sixteen; Ava Manotoc, Vanessa Ver, and straight from Cebu, Lota Misuari, all nineteen; plus a tribute to my tormentor, Polly Cayetano, seventeen. I chose those names,” he hastens to add, “because I want people to become less emotional about political personalities. I’d like to see them smile when they hear those names.”

But what about the names’ real owners? “My legal research reveals that there’s no law against using other people’s names. Of course I might desist if the origs want me to, pero I’m sure that if they see the girls, with their beauty and sex appeal, baka matuwa pa pati sila.”

What de la Cruz tries his best to suppress is the notion that his girls are “available” – the subject of his interview with Asia magazine. “If ever they do it on their own, I have to make sure na hindi naa-associate yung ginagawa nila sa akin.” He applies the same tack to an even more sensational recent development in local film practice: “Beware, I tell them, if your director wants you to do penetration scenes, because I can’t be around to keep watch all the time. Ask yourselves na lang, in a practical way: gusto niyo ba, type niyo ba yung makakapareha niyo, tama ba yung bayad sa puri niyo, and dapat, money down. Kung maaatim ng kalooban niyo e bakit hindi, basta hindi kayo pinupuwersa. Pero kung ako ang tatanungin kung ano’ng advice ko, sabihin niyong sabi ko, huwag.”

Legacies

By a mysterious coincidence a side door opens, and out drifts a pale and fragile wisp of a girl in housefrock, smiling shyly at everyone present and receding before anyone could figure out what she was about. “Si Lampel Cojuangco,” Rey de la Cruz whispers, almost conspiratorially. “Hindi na ’yan mabobola ng producer sa mga penetration scenes.”

For every extreme development de la Cruz has required a balancing factor; it must be alarmingly reflective of the times that he claims to have resorted recently to, of all things, Bible-reading. “Dito ko kinukuha ngayon yang mga lessons na ina-apply ko sa kanila,” he says, picking up a voluminous edition from his desk and putting it down just as quickly.

One wonders how far he is willing to enforce the scarily stiff Judeo-Christian tradition on his present and prospective talents. “Me male applicant pa nga aka dito from the States” – he takes out photos of a mean-looking Oriental in progressive stages of dishabille and spreads them over the scriptures – “at mahina na yung dalawang walk-in applicants a day, from both sexes, sa akin. That’s because I can claim now that my stars get sold partly on the basis of their association with me. Pati masa nakikilala na yung hitsura ko.”

Talking about his image and popularity leads him to articulate his longing for “a legitimate ‘bold’ center, para magka-outlet ang artistic bold films, para ma-develop ang taste ng local audience, at higit sa lahat, para may pagkakakitaan ang mga taong umaasa sa ganung klaseng hanapbuhay, kesa mapilitang gumawa ng mas masama pa. I don’t understand why people get mad when the censors get strict, tapos they get mad again when there are bold films released. Most of all I don’t mind being associated with bold, pero ayun na nga, it’s always taken against me.”

Maybe you’ve become a symbol of sorts? I suggest. Rey de la Cruz smiles. He seems to like the idea.

Notes

[1] A then-popular TV talk show featuring mostly film personalities, hosted by Inday Badiday (screen name of Lourdes Jimenez Carvajal, sister of magazine editor Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc).

[2]Star-Building Pays,” Times Journal (May 26, 1980): 21, 23.

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Book Texts – The Critic as Creator

Completed on assignment at the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, this interview was seemingly afflicted by the several strokes of ill fortune that befell it, its production agency, and eventually the government that had set up, best intentions notwithstanding, the ECP. As Soltero was being finalized, Senator Benigno S. Aquino was murdered by still officially unknown assailants – and no amount of goodwill from this point onward could ever save the Marcos government. The ECP was dissolved and replaced by a more profit-oriented institution prior to the downfall of the regime. Pio de Castro III suffered a near-fatal stroke a few years later and died thereafter, as did Bienvenido Noriega, Jr.; Jay Ilagan perished in a vehicular accident. The hotel where the bulk of the interview was conducted, Hyatt Terraces in Baguio City, collapsed in 1990, during the last major Luzon earthquake of the 20th century. The article itself was intended for SineManila, an ECP film magazine which was unceremoniously shut down by a turf-obsessed intelligence agent in the organization; it eventually came out in an older outlet of mine, the December 4, 1984, issue of the Philippine Collegian (pp. 4-7), a student paper. As de Castro had feared, critical responses to Soltero ranged from cool to frozen; how much of this may have been due to the media’s civic duty of denouncing any move (including any movie) made by the Marcos government will have to be determined more carefully, at some future time.

Pio de Castro

Anyone who wills himself success in filmmaking must at least be competent in the less compound medium of literature. Hence the several cases of serious writers on film – often lumped together under the dubious heading of “film critics” – who eventually go into film practice, and the occasional instances of film practitioners who set down their thinking on print through interviews or articles or book writing. Not surprisingly, the field is replete with some of the best minds at work in any national art scene, a veritable namedropper’s delight: the French New Wave, the New American Cinema, to cite the more familiar foreign contexts hereabouts. More relevant still are the treats of Ishmael Bernal accommodating any interviewer daring enough to take him on, or Eddie Romero discoursing lucidly on the aesthetics and politics of local cinema under his own byline.

Such rare examples of talent awesome enough to cross over limitations inherent in various media make of us lesser mortals, if not trustful admirers, then suspicious watchdogs of that remote realm of genius. Any artist who distinguishes himself in a particular field cannot repeat his success elsewhere unless he were more than just another diligent craftsman: when Pauline Kael abandoned her New Yorker post, upon which she built a reputation as the most influential critic in America, the entire movie press called itself to attention; when her first project as script doctor, James Toback’s Love and Money (1982), flopped both critically and financially (notwithstanding an impressive debut by its director in Fingers [1978], which Kael was among the few to appreciate), howls of self-righteous protest resounded beyond Hollywood. Smug silence accompanied the still-plucky Pauline’s return from peril to the pages of her all-too-forgiving publication.

A similar posture prevails in the country. About the worst thing you could say of a tried-and-tested film writer who has “legitimized” his status via membership in the local film critics’ circle is that he is using the organization as a stepping-stone for breaking into the industry. All those contacts, all that goodwill, all that theoretical sharpening, where else could everything lead but toward practical application? Sooner than later another founding member of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, Pio de Castro III, will be going the same route attempted by his colleagues Behn Cervantes and Nestor U. Torre Jr. – right into the mainstream of filmmaking. As most frustrated film buffs would delight in pointing out, de Castro’s predecessors – whether deservedly or not – did not meet the expectations accordant to individuals of their stature, proof of which lies in their inactivity as film directors at the moment. (Never mind that perhaps the most successful critical and commercial filmmaker of the moment, Ishmael Bernal, was also a practicing critic before his entry into the industry.)

“You might consider me a bit different,” de Castro clarifies at the outset. “I was into filmmaking way before I went into film criticism. Even as a Manunuri member, I derived my subsistence primarily from commercial filmmaking. My practice of film criticism was more of an avocation, something that followed from my delight in the medium and not the other way around.” Pio de Castro III is the 40-year-old multi-awarded advertising and television director – and erstwhile Manunuri chairman – unanimously recommended by the board of jurors of last year’s scriptwriting contest of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines to direct the third-place winner, Bienvenido Noriega, Jr.’s Soltero. The movie follows the outfit’s first major (1982) successes, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (from the screemplay by Ricardo Lee) and Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata (from the screenplay of Jose Javier Reyes).

All the awards and distinctions garnered by both only serve to complicate the prospects begin brought to bear on de Castro’s Soltero by an audience already made vigilant with the awareness that the feature film debutant had been and can still be capable of passing reliable judgment on his colleagues-to-be. With the great probability of confronting unreasonably high criteria for aesthetic acceptance, de Castro has decided this early upon a stance of self-effacement. “I’ll be very happy just to get mixed reviews for this film,” the heavily built authoritative director and occasional character actor coolheadedly declares. “If some like it and others hate it, that would be good enough for me.” Such modesty belies what may be the most auspicious motion picture debut since, well, Oro, Plata, Mata although again the absurdity of latching reputations onto first works would be validated in the cases of established artists whose subsequent outputs render even well-received first films less significant, and vice versa.

Post-production observers can attest to the project’s evolution from literary winner to cinematic aggregate, from a disjointed three-hour rough cut to (as of press time) a coherent two-hour interlock. “I wanted to pursue the ‘experimentalism’ of the project by shooting the script exactly as the writer finished it,” says de Castro. “Normally you would have the director revising a script to suit the demands of his particular sensibilities, if not discarding it altogether and retaining just the plotline and the names of the characters. With Soltero it was different. I had to audition for the role of director. I could have been rejected; so the way I saw it, my passing the trial for the position meant my being qualified to direct the script as written.”

De Castro certainly had credibility in so far as being a “soulmate,” a key word in the film, to the central character in Soltero was concerned. He married late, about five years ago, and so was a soltero, or bachelor, for most of his life thus far. Almost immediately upon graduation from Ateneo, he took up his M.A. in film and TV at Wayne State University as a Fulbright-Hays scholar. When he returned to the country in the early 1970s, he applied for and got into Image Film, the advertising outfit with which he is still connected. He also moved into a small apartment near his office at LVN Studios; it was here where the Manunuri used to meet until de Castro, then already married, moved to San Juan where, needless to add, the Manunuri still goes to during sessions.

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Foundations

Soltero the screenplay tells the story of Crispin Rodriguez, a banking executive in this late 20s, whose singular pursuit is that of love in its various forms. In three particular areas of his life – romantic, familial, and professional – he realizes his aim in varying degrees of success. The film, in contrast, focuses on the aforesaid areas according to the amount of personal commitment involved on the part of the lead character – i.e., the most on Crispin’s love life, some on his family, and a few on his officemates. The evolution of emphases from the abstract whole of the screenplay to the more accessible simplification of the earlier mentioned interlock commenced only after it became literally evident that strict observance of the written work would have necessitated a final cut which exceeded three hours in length. “It would have been nice to see what the three-hour-plus finished product would be like,” says scriptwriter Noriega, “but we won’t be able to sell it. Having two versions of the same film – a long one and a short one – would also be financially inadvisable because of the expense involved.”

De Castro and Noriega, in apparent disregard of the traditionally individualistic processes acknowledged in undertakings of “high” art, conferred with expert acquaintances and arrived at the hierarchy of emphases essential to delimiting the running time of the final version.

As it is, however, the film’s present form will be undergoing a few more reconsiderations induced by its problematic transition from script to screen. A rich exposition, for example, appears to raise some issues which are not all pursued, while a few resolutions ask to be expounded on beforehand. “I’m amazed,” says de Castro in a more typically candid mood, “that a lot of people have been passing judgment on the project as if it were already finished. So many things can still be accomplished in the course of post-production.”

He may be merely reacting to a manifestation of the high expectations he had already anticipated. Those fortunate enough to have attended screenings of both rough cut and interlock, for example, will marvel over the remarkable job of restructuring accomplished in the present form, in which shots and sometimes entire scenes intended for mutually exclusive purposes were transposed to other sequences without any noticeable diminution of credulity. Given such expertise, the tendency of insiders to extrapolate their expectations could very well soar out of control. The notion that this course need not apply to established directors who have consistently maintained a level of mediocrity would be patently unfair, but de Castro is not one to take the whole thing seriously. As he announced during audition sessions for the movie, “I just want to do a successful commercial exercise – a ‘bold’ tearjerker!”

As a result of what may be considered the streamlining of the screenplay, lead character Crispin Rodriguez’s story has been constructed to begin with the end of a romantic relationship and end with the end of another one. The multi-leveled treatment carried over from the original screenplay allows for a meaningful overlap of the two women’s stories, not to mention the several ingressions into the affairs of Crispin’s family and officemates, which serve as commentaries on the lead character’s condition. A series of events arranged chronologically provides a throwback to the narrative requisites of commercial cinema, but the overall emotional wallop is more exhaustive without being as blatant as the commonly encountered cases of box-office melodrama, primarily because of the high degree of intellectual involvement demanded by the unconventional storytelling mode.

Yet preview audiences agreed that the product so far has demonstrated more commercial potential than could be expected from a prototype of the existentialist art film, purveyed most capably by contemporary German filmmakers. For with perhaps an eye out for the genre’s absence of appeal among Filipinos (witness, if you can, the availability of Ingmar Bergman releases), de Castro seems to have surmounted its individualistic nature by infusing it with a more popular, and therefore mass, accessibility. Or has he? Experts at home in the territory of personal cinema constantly allude to the humor, the ease with which the best samples are executed; after all, ethereality, when it becomes more than just the subject of the work itself, can never, at least in theory, be mistaken for its antithesis, ponderosity. In this respect, the director of Soltero can be said to have hit the right formula in his approach to the work – that is, to regard leaden material with the levity of familiarity. But then again, would that be a fair remark to make about a presumably perspicacious artist?

Extra-creative factors will determine the permanence of Soltero’s contribution to local filmic history, but at this time at least one declaration can confidently be made: the movie succeeds on its own terms not because of its commercial concessions or its generic faithfulness, but because of its conscious verisimilitude to a heretofore unexplored aspect of Philippine social reality, an achievement which draws a historical affinity through Crispin Rodriguez from other characters of contemporary cinema grappling with the entanglements of their respective social fabrics – e.g., the Kulas of Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon. . . Paano Kayo Ngayon? (1976), the Miguelito Lorenzo of Oro, Plata, Mata (1982), even the Julio Madiaga and the Poldo Miranda of Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975) and Jaguar (1979) respectively. The fundamental difference, however, between Crispin Rodriguez and the other names mentioned is that the Soltero character achieves historical significance paradoxically by his distance from the historical vortex. Whereas the other characters get caught up, whether or not against their will, in the velocity of their respective social eras (and therewith become signposts of some sort for scholars of local culture), Crispin Rodriguez could never attain fulfillment as a realist character except through the mutual exclusion between himself and his particular reality, which, because of its alienating affects, can never be disclosed in any other way.

He may be loath to consider the comparison, but Pio de Castro III bears such a visionary resemblance to Crispin Rodriguez. His wife, the former Joy Soler, describes him as “a very quiet, contemplative, into-Zen person. I’ve never seen anyone so placid. It takes a large amount of negative stimulation to get him angry at something.” The de Castros first met while they were both performing for the Philippine Educational Theater Association during the early ’70s. “He was visiting [founding chair] Cecile Garrucho then,” Joy recalls, “when he got persuaded to act for PETA. In one summer he did Bertolt Brecht’s [The Good Person of] Szechuan, the passion play Kalbaryo where he played Jesus Christ, and an Off-Broadway production, [Gretchen Cryer & Nancy Ford’s] The Last Sweet Days of Isaac.” De Castro’s acting career shifted media when Lino Brocka cast him as the ambitious worker Imo in Maynila, where he garnered critical notices for his sharply drawn portrayal of a single-minded proletarian who leaves his hopeless existence behind for the higher living of a white-collar employee. His last screen appearance was in Romy Suzara’s Mga Uod at Rosas (1982), in which he appeared as a commercial artist who again leaves behind a starvation lifestyle, this time as a serious painter, for the more lucrative lure of advertising.

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Resemblances

Again the parallelisms prove too tempting to resist. “The guy’s determination is fantastic,” avers Joy. “During film festivals where he decided to participate, for example, he could watch movies round-the-clock, sleeping less to watch more, and still retain what he saw for critical discussions” – reference here being made especially to de Castro’s involvement in both editions of the Manila International Film Festival, the second of which he participated in as chair of the committee in charge of a well-received comprehensive retrospective of Filipino films. Unlike his filmic portrayals, however, de Castro does not believe in brandishing his curriculum vitae so readily. “He takes care to keep most of his achievements discreet,” says Joy, without any hint of disappointment whatsoever. “Whenever he gets wind of a big break coming his way, he never tells me unless it’s been formalized. As a person close to him, I have the impression that his expectations are in inverse proportion to his efforts.”

Casual observers can easily corroborate the couple’s selfless dynamicism. Their residence is inadvertently referred to as the Manunuri headquarters even by the members themselves; for most of the group’s profitless subsistence, the de Castros “subsidized” meetings by preparing hearty meals (then as now the main incentive for attendance) for an inadequate token among the members present. Joy maintains that “there was no prior agreement between Pio and myself to support the group as well as we could. The Manunuris are the sort of people I don’t need in my career, but that’s precisely why I enjoy their company so much: they provide a welcome respite, these artistically inclined individuals who are honest and humane for a change. Also I make a deliberate effort to link up with Pio’s concerns, and serving the group is one of the most gratifying ways I know.”

“I learned a few thins while doing Soltero, says de Castro in Baguio, after a day of shooting some pivotal sequences, accommodating an unexpected TV interview in between, taking the ECP public relations staff to a few interesting locations (including a general hospital for the treatment of a member’s eye infection), and staying up past midnight to answer some off-the-record questions while preparing to leave for Manila by early morning. “No, actually I learned a lot. What we see on the screen in movie-house, the things we can criticize so easily after a short period of practice – those weren’t created with as much facility. I believe in film criticism, I believe there’s a place for it not only within the interests of the general public but those of the industry itself; I have always been into filmmaking, but working for the first time inside the industry has given me a different perspective. Whereas before I could assent to some sympathy for local artists, today I might even become vehement about it. I have this newly emerging conviction that if only to help them appreciate first-hand the plight of local filmmakers, all the film critics around us should be given the opportunity to direct.”

De Castro did not exactly push himself forward in a director’s direction, if one were to judge by the number of breaks he broke. One of the more recent ones went to an established director and was shown last year to a good box-office crowd which seemed to have excluded serious film observers, while another has been on hold ever since the local censors demanded a certification from the material’s writer, who has been dead long enough for his works to be made required reading even in institutions where they were previously banned. “I was always on the fringes of the industry, more as a filmmaker than as a critic. In a sense I still am, because of the nature of ECP. I tried my hand in advertising first and TV next, to be able to gauge my capability for film direction. With advertising, I thought that if I could make a minute or less worthy of my client’s money, then maybe I could use longer time to greater advantage; with TV it was more of an experiment: I did a limited series film-style, with more complicated set-ups, matching shots, and so on. When people said I did well, I felt more confident.”

A host of awards of merit and excellence from local and international advertising congresses, plus positive reviews and a Catholic Mass Media Award for the TV series Pira-Pirasong Pangarap[1] all serve to back up the assurance – of production experts if not de Castro himself. “I’m glad I had the opportunity to work with ECP; it’s the only outfit which could have produced a project like Soltero – an unconventional movie without traditional exposition, obvious conflicts, surface climax. I was also given leeway in the casting, except for Jay Ilagan, for whom the screenplay was written and who was specified from the start. I chose the performers solely on the basis of their individual proficiencies.” The actors referred to can likewise enjoy the privilege of a certain amount of pre-judgment. “If anyone asks me how any of the actors performed according to expectations,” says de Castro, “I would say simply that the very fact that they were cast implies that expectations were already met.” Jay Ilagan, who delineates the character of Crispin Rodriguez, may at this point in his life claim to have enacted the role of his career,[2] just as Vic Silayan did in Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata (1982) where Ilagan won his only other acting awards (Metro Manila Film Festival and the Manunuri’s Urian as supporting actor), a year after his MMFF trophy, also for supporting actor, for Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Brutal (1980).

Based on the controversies (or absence thereof) attendant to the production of Soltero, de Castro can assert that the project thus far seems to have acquired the approval of ECP observers. Previous ECP films always elicited adverse reactions regarding budgeting, with Soltero so far the only exception, notwithstanding last year’s economic inflation. “In fairness to finance experts connected with the project,” adds de Castro, “when they saw the results they understood why a few seconds’ take could cost so much and take so long to set up.” In contrast with its spectacle-scale ECP precedents, Soltero may yet chart a new and more affordable course for future productions – both within ECP and, more important, an industry whose audience has been estranged from essential intimacy in cinema…that is, if and when Soltero achieves its expected impact upon film experts and unexpected acceptance among movie-goers.

The movie’s director would rather not be too optimistic about either. “The movie has its moments, to say the least. I don’t want to be disappointed by the way it turns out, artistically and financially.” A performance by the film on both levels as modest as its filmmaker would suffice for the purposes of the film lover who only wanted to do good. The future can be just as modest: “I want to do a gangster film,” for a change of pace. I want to let out all the fury and excitement which I had to keep under control in Soltero.” A slight pause, then “I just hope I did well enough to deserve to make another movie.”[3]

Notes

[1] A moderately successful early ’80s program, rather than the ’90s series with the same title.

[2] After a recent re-viewing of Ishmael Bernal’s Salawahan (1979), I realized that this was Jay Ilagan’s indisputable peak as actor. For some reason, all his performances seemed to decrease in effectivity the further we get from this point.

[3] As it turned out, Pio de Castro III and Bienvenido Noriega, Jr. managed to make one more movie each after Soltero; Noriega in fact had died before one of his plays was adapted for the screen.

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Book Texts – Perseverance in a Neglected Dimension

I had planned a series of interviews with outstanding film practitioners and had, by this time, already conducted limited Q&A sessions with Ishmael Bernal and Ricardo Lee. What intervened was my sudden return to university, for my second bachelor’s degree, in film. Needless to point out, I learned much less from the program (and some teachers I had had probably learned more) than from my interactions with practitioners; but other factors cropped up, from individual (the death of cinematographer Conrado Baltazar) to political (the people-power uprising that shut down the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, which in effect had sponsored my studies). I had never gone over this article again since its original publication in the March-April 1984 issue of the Diliman Review (volume 32, issue 2, pp. 66-72); it sounded stiff then from being defensive about the choice of subject, and still does. I was gratified however to realize that the claims I made about the interviewee had only intensified through the decades, and that if I’d been fated to write about only one technical contributor, I could do worse than focus on the typically least-celebrated talent on most film projects. The original exchanges, which were conducted over several sessions at Ramon Reyes’s studio and home, were recorded by hand (ironic, considering the nature of Reyes’s craft, but he was not one to point that out); the notes have been lost, but I remember our speaking in Taglish and drafting the article accordingly, then deciding, with Reyes’s approval, on translating our conversations to English to dispense with the extensive translations.

Ramon Reyes

If he had settled for security and stability, Ramon Reyes would not appear as imposing as he does now. South Asian features set in a six-foot frame, he confronts a career which has consistently resisted the efforts of his predecessors to draw forth some sense of importance, if not material well-being, from the star-blind business of movie-making. An impression of street-smart confidence rounds out an aura of intimidation, a trait the real character does not share: Reyes will be quick to point to himself as an epitome of his profession’s paradoxical nature. “The fact that producers reserve sound mixing for last among the phases of film production,” he growls, “implies that the process itself is indispensable. It’s the phase that finalizes every project, that in a sense prepares it for exhibition. Yet I still have to come across a film other than Mike de Leon’s which has a design for sound ready even at the pre-production stage.”

The voice derives a resonance not from volume but through a capacity to articulate with sound logic (pun intended). Close attention will eventually reveal, however, a modesty which would have disadvantaged most film aspirants who have only talent to fall back on. In spite of his attempts to draw attention to his profession instead of himself, Reyes can hardly help his propensity for perfection. Ten awards in a span of a little over seven years from four award-giving bodies, plus a special trophy intended as a commendation for collective technical excellence – no other track record remains as impressive so far in his or any other technical field of Philippine filmmaking. What makes the achievement extraordinary is not so much the ordinariness of the victor as the fact that no one who understands the import would begrudge him for it.

A Manileño from birth, Ramon Arevalo Reyes was a spark in the post-war baby boom which made possible the entrenchment of the star system in the 1960s and the emergence of movie patronage as a national distinction in the ’70s. The succession by Filipinos of nearby Taiwanese as the most movie-going people in the world, estimated for posterity by the latest edition of the Guinness Book of World Records (McWhirter) at almost twenty films per capita per annum, just about says all that needs to be told about the prevalence of the practice. And with the steady decline of the Filipino birth rate (ironically due in no small part to increased sexual awareness through films, which in turn has triggered off the social psyche’s conditioned conservatism as evidenced in family planning and anti-smut campaigns), filmmaking in the Philippines may revert to the purely commercial orientation of the late ’60s – minus the fanatic adulation afforded by a predominantly youthful population – unless an international market for local quality films be developed, or the high population growth rate returns.[1]

The attendant demand for formal training Reyes admits would faze him. “Except for Amang Sanchez, I know of no other soundman who has taken up sound engineering. That’s why I insist on being credited for ‘sound’ instead of for ‘sound engineering.’” Reyes himself holds an Associate in Electronics, which he finished in 1965 at the University of the East after two years of preparation for his childhood aspiration, a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering. Prior to that, he had typical middle-class preparations comprising elementary schooling at San Sebastian College and intermediate schooling at Don Bosco Technical Institute, where he spent his free time tinkering with machine shop equipment.

Movies then he watched purely for entertainment, until Mike de Leon, already an LVN Studios busybody, approached Reyes’s father Luis, already a star soundman recently rewarded by the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences for his work in Gerardo de Leon’s El Filibusterismo (1962), for a possible successor in the studio’s tradition of technical expertise. Although dynasticism was (and still remains) a feature of Philippine filmmaking, the elder Reyes refused responsibility for his son’s employment – more from a sense of propriety than self-preservation. Two other awards from regional festivals later, Luis Reyes shared his second Famas award with his son’s first for their work in Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975). The paternal team-up was to prove durable enough for a few more trophies for two consecutive years afterward – the first another Famas and the second an Urian from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino for Itim (with Sebastian Sayson) and the third another Urian for Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising, both by Mike de Leon, who has since defined a cycle in the Reyes line by retaining Ramon for all his succeeding projects. In 1979 the Reyeses worked on another Brocka film, Jaguar, which, like Maynila, was destined to capture the admiration of European critics in the early ’80s.

Yet for all his filial gratitude, Ramon Reyes would not encourage his children Carmelite, Lawrence, and Angelica, all under ten years of age, to work for film. “My success – if you could call it that – was due to a combination of luck and hard work, fifty-fifty. I would not want to have my kids take such big risks.” The family recently moved into a house of its own, after transferring several times from one residence to another, to a modest bungalow in Greenland subdivision in Cainta, Rizal. Reyes’ wife of twelve years, the former Virginia Alvarez, understands. She occasionally drops by LVN Studios, about an hour’s public-vehicle ride away from their place, to bring him some food or sometimes just keep him company. Consolation, however small, Reyes derives from realization that “other soundpersons are not paid well at all, especially when compared to movie workers in other fields.”

The Reyes household is always busy, accommodating an average of eight – residents, househelp, visitors, not to mention pets – at a time. The entrance leads to a living room which barely distinguishes itself from the adjacent dining room; this in turn leads to the garage, from which one could either cross the lawn back to the entrance or take a slightly longer route out through Sampaguita Road and back into the front gate. Ease of access is reinforced by the reassuring arrangement of available space as defined by cushions by the front door opposed by a hi-fidelity component rack built into book and record shelves, then by aquaria and aquatic equipment opposed by kitchen appliances in the dining room. Faced at thirty-seven with all this material evidence, Reyes would certainly feel left behind when compared with his would-have-been colleagues in engineering school. “I couldn’t even afford to sustain my fondness for raising goldfish,” he muses, brushing silver-streaked hair away from leaden-rimmed spectacles. “I simply discovered I could spend my leisure time on activities more appropriate to my profession.”

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The Once and Always Expert

Work for Ramon Reyes normally begins after lunch at the LVN sound studio and could proceed way into the night, to avoid the distraction caused by office transactions. While occupied last year with Oro, Plata, Mata, he often worked until morning with Peque Gallaga, whose first solo credit as director it was. Gallaga’s staid wife Madie, who line-produced the project for the Exeperimental Cinema of the Philippines, becomes uncharacteristically garrulous to praise the efforts Reyes expended on the film: “He would work with Peque like mad, sometimes insisting on perfecting what already seemed to us an acceptable soundtrack.” After a first print converted highbrow preview audiences from skepticism to acclamation, Reyes and Gallaga, in typical celebratory form, retreated into the cold gloom of the LVN sound studio to remix certain portions of the film, including the entire first and last reels.

It was the subtly improved soundtrack of snatches of dialogue floating more distinctly above the din of party chatter in the opening sequence that dispelled the only major complaint against Reyes’s work in Oro, Plata, Mata during the Urian deliberations. For what may stand an the most outstanding achievement ever – luxuriance and evocation in eight channels, instead of the already extravagant four – in sound engineering in local cinema, Reyes won his latest Urian as well as the Film Academy of the Philippines awards. As further evidence, however, that his work was no fluke, Reyes’ closest competitor would have been himself, for his work in Mike de Leon’s Batch ’81 where, in contrast with that of Oro, Plata, Mata, the use of sound observed austere prescriptions so as to epitomize the disembodiment of the characters from the rest of their social environment.

Reyes’s latest Urian trophy means a lot more to him than just another acknowledgment of a job well done: “My colleagues have been teasing me about winning the Urian only for films directed by Mike de Leon. This time I managed to somehow prove that I could outdo myself regardless of my familiarity with the filmmaker.” The Oro, Plata, Mata soundtrack Reyes recalls as a “very complicated effort, involving various mixing levels.” For one thing, he points out, the clarity of dialogue depended upon the purpose of the scene – meaning that dialogue may be either distinct, as in the intimate scenes, or almost drowned out, as in the party, outdoor, or massacre scenes. Sound effects, for another thing, had to be carefully filtered so as to avoid conflicts of purpose. The country-house generator, for example, had to sound practically subliminal so as not to intrude in the depiction of activity at the rural estate, while on the other hand the burning fields had to sound cacophonic so as to contrast with the stillness of the forest retreat in the next scene.

Behind Reyes’s exploit in Oro, Plata, Mata lies the experience of what he remembers as “learning almost purely from practice” – by his calculation, more than eighty field recordings and three hundred sound engineering work for films since his first credit, Romy Villaflor’s Assignment: Hongkong, in 1965; a more immediate predecessor in his use of naturalistic sound effects would be his then year-old output in Laurice Guillen’s Salome. “I used to work on about fifty films a year until Magna Tech Omni emerged as a major competitor in 1977, after which I could do only about thirty, sometimes as few as twenty, a year. Since sound mixing for film is my bread and butter, I don’t have the option of choosing whether I want to work on a given project or not; but at least one good project a year will compensate for all the mediocre ones.”

Reyes prefers to work on “relatively quiet” undertakings like Mike de Leon’s Itim and Kisapmata (1981), since these would be both creatively challenging yet “easy to work on, without the need to experiment with unnecessary sounds.” When the project bears more noise than promise, however, Reyes tries to sustain himself as far as the film would allow him to. “The advantage here is that the producers of such projects would not take the artistic side seriously, so they pay attention only to the earlier portions of the film. If my inspiration doesn’t last until the end, neither would their interest anyway. Usually we wind up impressed with each other, they in my efficiency and I in their carelessness.”

Although fluent in the abstractions pertaining to his profession, Reyes allows instinct to influence his performance. “Normally I allow an equal ratio between instinct and routine. But the more challenging the project, the more I tend to rely on instinct.” Contrary to logical expectations, he resorts to routine only when a “quantity, as opposed to quality,” project imposes purely professional, as opposed to artistic, demands, especially in terms of deadline. “You wouldn’t believe how some producers think post-production can be accomplished within one week but sometimes I get notices to finish my work in three days. In which case I’d barely have time to concentrate on quality, much less allow for inspiration.”

Before working on an artistically difficult project, Reyes would allow himself a whole day of rest. This he more often than not realizes through staying at home and listening to music. His stereo component system, an ingenious combination of old-fashioned speakers and contemporary hardware set in space-saving set-ups, provides him with all the fidelity he requires. Reyes believes in serious music as an extender of sound appreciation, and goes at the moment for the aural sensualities in old-time jazz and futuristic renditions of classics ranging from Bach to Wagner.

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Sound Principles

“Music,” Ramon Reyes maintains while playing Tomita’s synthesizer version of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” (from the Suite bergamasque), “is just another form of sound.” Reyes is beyond the assertion of the superiority of his element as justification for the existence of his profession; in fact he believes in the functional subordination of film sound to action. “During fight or chase scenes I avoid the use of music as much as possible. If it has to, music can come in more effectively before or after the action.” Indeed the current crop of progressive film musicians has been able to harmonize well with Reyes when it comes to projects they work on together – proof of which resides in the regularity with which a particular musician would win an award in the same film Reyes wins for. Among the aforementioned scorers would be Ryan Cayabyab, Lorrie Ilustre, Lutgardo Labad, Jun Latonio, Winston Raval/Vanishing Tribe, and foremost of all Max Jocson, whose efforts for de Leon’s Itim and Brocka’s Cain at Abel and Maynila can be taken as textbook samples of the unobtrusive deployment of film music.

In so far as the Urian, the award which ensconced Reyes as the best craftsperson in his field, is concerned, Reyes says: “The criterion the critics use for sound is correct.” Said criterion goes: Sound in a film is effective if dialogue, music, sound effects, and silence are vividly reproduced and are creatively orchestrated. “I would prefer, however, that artistic approach be given more weight.” A preferable direction lies in the integration of art and technique as presumed in the criterion stipulated by the MPP for music, thus: Music in a film is considered effective if it underscores meaning, heightens mood and emotion, helps define character, and reinforces the rhythm and pace of the film. Replacement of the word music with sound, however, would result in an ambiguity brought about by the differences between organized and disorganized sound. Hence a more ideal criterion would have the latter starting out as sound, particularly the use of dialogue, music, sound effects, and silence – granting, of course, that such a conception would be comprehensible for the average industry practitioner. “In itself,” Reyes concedes, “the existing criterion is already too advanced for second-rate associates. One time I argued with a producer over as basic a technicality as perspective. He refused to consider the possibility that the volume of dialogue may diminish when the speaker moves to a distance or out of the frame.”

In any case, the resolution of the conflict between style and substance in sound engineering could then facilitate concentration on more advanced theoretical issues, among which the pre-eminence of original sound over artificial sound Reyes would propound as his favorite crusade: “The reputation of movie soundpersons suffered with the emergence of the sound studio. I used to disagree with my father over the limitations of dubbing, but now I realize that I wouldn’t mind sacrificing clarity for ambience and perspective anytime.” The technical clean-up assured by the availability of the sound studio developed a set of conventions that do not necessarily meet the requisites of realistic reproduction. Ambience, for example, is usually idealized to the point where a rarefied audibility is preferred to the sonority of an enclosed marketplace, even when the setting in question happens to be, say, an enclosed marketplace. This anti-realistic anomaly Reyes traces to the abuse of the studio’s capability of controlling unwanted effects: as a result, serious performers are themselves expected to vocalize in a normal indoor range of volume, a standard which slurs over a national mentality acquired from centuries of conditioning under loquacious colonizers.

“I remember my father’s very first piece of advice: observe rehearsal carefully for the cuing of dialogue, or the magic of the moment will be lost. That was the time when the expertise of mikepersons was indispensable to the set.” One of the more obvious examples Reyes mentions is the feeding of lines in comedy. “Since performers dub their lines one at a time all by themselves, the sense of timing, not to mention spontaneity, is difficult to recapture.” An element of nostalgia never fails to inform Reyes’ ideal of a project as “one hundred-percent original sound.” He started out as a field recorder and successfully survived the transition to studio engineering. At AM Productions, wherein he practiced for eight months in 1966, he had the opportunity to work with the late Gerardo de Leon, now generally regarded as the most significant filmmaker of his time, on an omnibus project called Tatlong Kasaysayan ng Pag-ibig. “We had already exposed some two hundred feet of film for a master shot when I shouted ‘Cut!’ because of the intrusion of extraneous sound. ‘Manong’ displayed no anger, he just offered friendly advice regarding how unnecessary sounds on the set can become effective incidental sounds on the screen.”

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Sound Lessons

Such training for sound expertise Reyes declares cannot be acquired from studio work alone. “When I suggested to Mike de Leon that we fill in a pause when Ward Luarca sees Chanda Romero for the first time at the gate in Batch ’81, I didn’t even consider the symbolic significance of a jet plane roaring overhead. I just thought that if I were recording on the set and a plane did fly overhead, I would think first, just as ‘Manong’ would have, of how interesting it might turn out to be.” Reyes points with pride to his work in Brocka’s Maynila, which exploited the field sounds of Chinatown, Quiapo, and Diliman, requiring only about thirty-percent studio dubbing. The foreign-trained Amang Sanchez he refers to as evidence of how “locally, we’re still catching up with the refinements of dubbing when a big-budget prestige project like [Francis Coppola’s] Apocalypse Now (1979), which I managed to observe, used original sound almost entirely throughout.” Sanchez may have pioneered in alerting contemporary local audiences to the viability of original sound through his work in Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Brutal (1980) and Moral (1982), but Reyes looks forward to single-handedly dissipating the myth of its inadequacy once and for all.

The local film industry fell behind its foreign counterparts ironically by trying to overtake what appeared to have been a trend toward studio engineering in the 1960s. But considering the fact that other local industries were (and still are) reliant upon foreign, and particularly American, ones, the transition from field to studio would have been inevitable anyway. Besides, as Reyes recalls, the lack of professionalism among performers then as now incurred additional production expenses. “While waiting for a latecomer, ambience would be modified, mainly because set noise varies according to the time of day.” A thoroughly professional production like Lamberto V. Avellana’s filmization of national artist Nick Joaquin’s A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (1966) could have benefited then from an expensive process called “direct optical,” where sound was transferred directly from field to film. This was during a time, according to Reyes, “when urban centers were not as congested as they are now,” thereby enabling field sound, as handled by his father, to be recorded with a minimum of intrusions. “Today’s typical prestige productions would not risk as much as LVN did then,” Reyes reflects. “Modest casting, domestic situations would normally be given proportionate technical treatment, not the kind of services enjoyed by Avellana’s particular project.”

In contrast, the disuse of field sound in Oro, Plata, Mata makes the younger Reyes’s achievement therein all the more admirable. “It’s a shame,” says Madie Gallaga, “that we decided upon ‘Monching’ only during the post-production stage. Several sounds in the rain forests of Negros are not available on standard sound-effects tracks. Also some stage-trained performers could not re-deliver their particular brand of upper-class hysteria in the studio. If we had managed to capture all the field sounds expertly enough for the final track, I would say that there would have been a qualitative difference.” Aware of the profit-oriented realities of the ’80s, Reyes would rather pin his hopes for the resurgence of original sound on the now-famous persistence of the Filipino filmmaker. “We are definitely behind the industries of other countries when it comes to facilities for recording original sound, but available local equipment might prove competent enough.” Resistance Reyes foresees as dual in nature: “Industry bigwigs will of course refuse to consider costlier arrangements on the set, much less buy additional equipment. But I’m also afraid that a cult of purists has developed among filmmakers – many of them might think twice before giving up technical deftness for authenticity.”

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Within Hearing Range

Artistic issues are not the only problems confronting the Filipino film craftsperson. More immediate ones center on the need to survive. Although Reyes acknowledges that “our pay here [at LVN] is okay – we earn better compared to the average movie worker,” he is also aware that most of his colleagues “have to resort to sidelines.” Of the nearly one hundred members of the Sound Technicians Association for Motion Pictures or STAMP, only about ten are actively involved in the more lucrative phase of post-production. The two-year-old FAP guild, first headed by Famas multi-awardee Juanito Clemente and now by Magna Tech Omni resident soundperson Rolando Ruta (helping out Reyes’ indisposed father, who at present is recovering from a mild stroke), has been striving to finalize a standardization of rates for duly accredited members.

Compared with the experience of the other FAP guilds, the STAMP could run into a lot of static owing to the crosslines involved in the allocation of a post-production budget which could reach as low as Php 20,000 out of the Php 1 million required for a passable production.[2] Frets Reyes, “How can you demand an increase in salary when you still have to look out for what you can get for your particular phase of production?” More often than not, a practitioner can get too grateful for a generous budget for sound engineering to be able to worry about how much will go to her or him as payment for her or his services. As can readily be gleaned from application forms for workshops and courses of the Movie Workers Welfare Fund, bright-eyed locals raring to crash into the festive world of filmmaking almost one-to-a-person rank sound supervision as their least-preferred field of specialty. “It doesn’t have glamour, and it doesn’t have the capacity, financial or otherwise, to compensate for the absence of glamour,” Reyes says. “The age range of sound supervisors is thirty-five to thirty-eight and increasing. The young ones think it’s not rewarding enough as a craft while the older ones say it’s not rewarding enough as a profession.”

And then of course there are the several discordant influences prevailing upon filmmaking as both art and craft. Censorship at the moment has generated the loudest uproar: “Sound doesn’t suffer as much from [celluloid] cuts as do the visuals, although the effect is more pronounced on music. The more important repercussion is the limitation the process imposes on post-production. The extra time the film spends with the censors should be used for necessary improvements on the finished product.” As to the provision of help for candidates for legal derailment, Reyes admits that soundpersons can only supply creative detours – “the creaking of a bed or the moaning of a couple in a lovemaking scene can be toned down so as not to become too suggestive.”

Other professional hazards come even from well-meaning sources, or what in a broad sense may be termed “self-styled sound critics.” Reyes enumerates three examples: the clumsy synchronizing of dialogue, the re-processing of prints from positives instead of master negatives, and the absence of standards for sound equipment in commercial theaters – all of which have detrimental effects on film sound. “When people hear out-of-sync delivery, hisses and scratches, or just plain bad playback, they tend to blame the soundperson without figuring out that the film editor is responsible for synchronization, the laboratory technician for print processing, and the theater owner for playback equipment. The solutions to these problems would require greater effort than the STAMP can muster, but we can go a long way if we start with enlightened movie-goers.” He tactfully avoids mentioning critics, but the implication is, or should be, deafening enough.

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Soundperson as Person

For his part, Reyes intends to persist in the pursuit of his career in the neglected dimension of film sound. Given the opportunity, he would not hesitate to work “for about three or four years in a more competitive milieu – the United States would be perfect – to acquire familiarity with advanced facilities and exchange knowledge and experience with experts.” Immigration would be out of the question though. “I’d still prefer to practice here, although a generation from now, when new blood comes in, I might have to start a stable business of my own just to be able to get by.” Such pessimism may not be in keeping with the promise of progress in local cinema, but for Reyes it will do. “At least by then I might be able to contribute a few things on my own terms.”

The prospects would not seem too far-fetched when Reyes’s status as the country’s premier soundperson is taken into account. He has just finished working double-time on another ECP project called Misteryo sa Tuwa (dir. Abbo de la Cruz), is winding up work with Sebastian Sayson on still another ECP film called Soltero (dir. Pio de Castro III) as well as with Juanito Clemente on a Regal production called Sinner or Saint (dir. Mel Chionglo), and is set to tackle the latest Mike de Leon film, Sister Stella L. Believers in historical determinism might all-too-readily concede that Reyes’s award-based recognition for this year will be ensured by any of the four titles mentioned.[3] Whatever the turnout of events, Ramon Reyes would be content with awaiting his next quality offer while earning his keep from the usual ones and relaxing with biking and ball games. “I could get by with a good massage or an out-and-out comedy movie, so long as I don’t get to dwell too much on the technical side of life.” So says one compleat professional, the ace technician in his field of endeavor, and his colleagues, competitors, and audience can dwell on the certainty that his craft, consummate as it is, will contain enough humor and humanity to go around for some time to come.

Notes

[1] By some estimates rapid population growth not only returned to the Philippines, but has exceeded the Asian region’s former topnotcher Pakistan (see CIA World Factbook and World Bank reports); it is outpaced by Singapore, which is also comparatively highly developed.

[2] Excluding inflation, Php 20,000 would be about 500 and Php 1 million about 20,000 US dollars. These relative costs will be difficult to adjust to current rates, since the digitalization of production has restandardized film practice. Contemporary independent films, for example, are known to have cost as little as Php 2 million, while low-cost studio productions might cost at least ten times that amount.

[3] As it turned out, Reyes (during my last year as a member) did compete with himself and received his latest critics’ award for Mike de Leon’s Sister Stella L.; with four more trophies afterward, he would emerge as topnotch winner, though lifetime achievement awards have so far been given to practitioners in other categories.

Works Cited

Avellana, Lamberto V., dir. A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. Scr. Donato Valentin and Trinidad Reyes. Diadem Productions, 1965.

Brocka, Lino, dir. Cain at Abel. Scr. Ricardo Lee. Cine Suerte, 1982.

———, dir. Jaguar. Scr. Ricardo Lee and Jose F. Lacaba. Bancom Audiovision, 1979.

———, dir. Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag. Scr. Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. Cinema Artists, 1975.

CIA World Factbook. Raw Data. “Country Comparison: Population Growth Rate.” 2012.

Chionglo, Mel, dir. Sinner or Saint. Scr. Ricardo Lee. Regal Films, 1984.

Coppola, Francis Ford, dir. & co-scr. Apocalypse Now. Co-scr. John Milius. American Zoetrope, 1979.

De Castro, Pio III, dir. Soltero. Scr. Bienvenido Noriega, Jr. Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1984.

De la Cruz, Abbo, dir. & scr. Misteryo sa Tuwa. Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1984.

De Leon, Gerardo, dir. El Filibusterismo. Scr. Adrian Cristobal. Bayanihan and Arriba Film Productions, 1962.

———, dir. Tatlong Kasaysayan ng Pag-ibig. Scr. Pierre Salas. AM Productions, 1966.

De Leon, Mike, dir. & co-scr. Batch ’81. Co-scr. Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. and Raquel Villavicencio. MVP Pictures, 1982.

———, dir. Itim. Scr. Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. and Gil Quito. Cinema Artists, 1976.

———, dir. & co-scr. Kisapamata. Co-scr. Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. and Raquel Villavicencio. Bancom Audiovision, 1981.

———, dir. & co-scr. Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising. Co-scr. Rey Santayana. LVN Pictures, 1977.

———, dir. & co-scr. Sister Stella L. Co-scr. Jose F. Lacaba and Jose Almojuela. Regal Films, 1984.

Diaz-Abaya, Marilou, dir. Brutal. Scr. Ricardo Lee. Bancom Audiovision, 1980.

———, dir. Moral. Scr. Ricardo Lee. Seven Stars, 1982.

Gallaga, Peque, dir. Oro, Plata, Mata. Scr. Jose Javier Reyes. Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1982.

Guillen, Laurice, dir. Salome. Scr. Ricardo Lee. Bancom Audiovision, 1981.

McWhirter, Norris. Guinness Book of World Records. New York: Bantam, 1983.

Villaflor, Romy, dir. Assignment: Hongkong. Scr. Ben Feleo. Ambassador Productions, 1965.

World Bank. “Population Growth (Annual %).” Table to 2010-2014.

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Book Texts – First Persons

Huwaran Hulmahan
Warning: emo material coming up.

A basic personal contradiction underlies the existence of this introductory essay. Johven Velasco had asked me, as his colleague and sometime mentor, to write one for his first book, Huwaran/Hulmahan: Reading Stars, Icons, and Genre Films in Philippine Cinema, then at the manuscript stage (n.b.: a distinction must be made between the aforementioned Huwaran/Hulmahan and the present Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp.). My reply, in so many words, was that an intro would be more useful for a young author who needed some sort of validation from an established personage; in his case, he’d had enough of a stature to introduce himself, so to speak, so I told him he’d be better off asking friends like me to just review his manuscript for the benefit of the reading public.

The outpour of grief that attended his sudden death on September 1, 2007 might have surprised those who knew him as only an occasional credit or by-line or lumbering, cane-dependent figure. Velasco, for the most part and increasingly toward the end of his life, epitomized as nearly complete a combination of Othernesses that anyone could find in an individual in his situation. He was a teacher without the necessary advanced qualifications, illegitimate and impoverished in a middle-class milieu, intelligent and overweight in the face of middle-brow pop culture’s philosophobia and lookism, spiritual amid the materialist orientation of liberal academia, principled even when surrounded by pragmatists, and openly queer by any measure, when most men from generations later than his still opted for the comforts and conveniences of the closet. To top it all, his was a looming presence – about as in-your-face as Otherness could get.

When he lost his full-time teaching position at the University of the Philippines Film Institute (UPFI), his cri de coeur in the form of a mobile-phone SMS became the equivalent of a much-quoted haiku, the lamentation of a Pinoy Job: Bakit ako pinarurusahan? Naging tamad ba ako? Naging masama ba ako? [Why am I being punished? Did I turn lazy? Did I become venal?] No one had the heart to point out to him that what had changed was not so much him but the world around him. For where he had remained an old-school maestro, benevolent toward friends and gentlemanly toward enemies, everyone else, even those who walked the hallowed halls of academe, had long already internalized the dog-eat-dog values that typify periods of developmental haste.

Huwaran/Hulmahan was one of the means by which he had hoped to recover from the devastating financial and psychological blow dealt by the loss of his UPFI instructorship, the one incident from which he could actually never recover, the straw that finally broke his over-burdened back. He had originally been assigned to a number of non-compensatory academic functions, all of which he tackled in his usual selfless and enthusiastic manner. But when it came time for everyone else to take stock of his situation vis-á-vis the university’s up-or-out policy for untenured faculty, no one came to his defense to explain to higher authorities why he had not been able to make any headway in completing his master’s degree.

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When he told me this kind of casually brutal though legally defensible negligence would not have happened if, among other factors, I had stayed on instead of decamping for the proverbial greener pastures, I figured I owed him a favor, but I let him apply on his own terms. In response to a call for papers to the Korean conference I was coordinating, he submitted the Huwaran/Hulmahan manuscript – to which I had to answer that he had enough quality material to constitute an entire panel unto himself. His response to his experience of attending the conference was to re-assess his predicaments and formulate a few resolutions, but the form it took was an amazing and much-circulated (and tragically self-prophetic) epistolary piece that now serves as the epilogue of this collection – a funny, self-deprecating, astutely observed, yet ultimately heart-breaking narrative that reflected as much of the peoples surrounding him as it revealed a heretofore unheralded ability: Velasco the raconteur. Philippine film commentary is rife with personal essays, but “Korean Rhapsody” stands out for having been written during its author’s fullest maturation, where a peculiar combination of wisdom and kindness suffuses the usual gestures toward camp, ambition, self-doubt, and defiant hopefulness.

Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp. may be translated as “Modeling/Molding Etc.” The present volume differs from Velasco’s earlier compilation in that it contains, apart from his autobiographical essay and all the original Huwaran/Hulmahan pieces, a number of journalistic contributions that started appearing in a number of periodicals since the start of Velasco’s term as UP faculty, as well as some of his plans for revisions (notably the splitting up of the longest article into one essay and a short fan article). Upon my return from my stint as exchange teacher in Korea, I kept asking him about his Huwaran/Hulmahan manuscript, with the intention of convincing him to submit it as the equivalent of a creative thesis before presenting it to a university press for publication. He was receptive to the idea – it was consistent with the resolutions he listed in his personal re-assessment – yet in a few months he seemed to have turned against everything he wanted to continue or complete, and instead talked, albeit jokingly, about setting himself up for his eventual retirement. The day he failed to wake up, he was scheduled to take a trip to a farm to consider some options in agri-business, a direction that he’d said he was reluctant to take. His partner of several decades, Jess Evardone, stayed over at his house to accompany him, and was the first person to discover that he was no longer alive. But in staying on first in the hearts of a few, and later in the minds of many more, his Otherness was thus in the end both completed by his death yet paradoxically also now fully absent.

An expanding circle of friends decided that Velasco’s legacy was worth maintaining, and the present volume is only one of several planned outputs. In putting together all the writings we could salvage, from hard drives and disks through email attachments to scanned manuscripts, I got to realize in hindsight that Velasco’s hesitation in getting his original manuscript published was not really because he had given up on accomplishing anything. On the contrary, he had lately discovered the psychic rewards of being a public intellectual operating in the feedback-intensive field of popular culture, so much so that one way, perhaps the only way, and definitely the first way of looking at Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp. is that it is a work in progress, whose final form would have been defined possibly a year or two later had he lived on, depending on the insights that he could have drawn from his intensive coverage of the local movie scene.

Yet the current manuscript, for all its gaps, overlaps, and reversals, already constitutes an impressive achievement in itself, one that makes it possible to canonize its author as the millennium’s first major Filipino film commentator, relegating a significant number of other aspirants (myself included) to the status of also-rans, Salieris to his Mozart. Even in its still-to-be-finished state, Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp. is indicative of Velasco’s ability to bridge distant and contemporary periods and subject their emblematic phenomena to sharp critical scrutiny leavened with wry humor. But more than a mere display of intellectual acrobatics is one quality that remains in full, regardless of the condition of the compilation or of its individual articles: Velasco’s unabashed affection for his material, his refreshingly frank appreciation and admission of cultural pleasure, as evident in the collection’s emphasis on performers and their films.

“In Praise of the Film ‘Star,’” the very last article he wrote and his first to be published posthumously, serves to determine the general direction of the collection as a whole. It is quickly followed (in Part 1: Fan Texts) by a series of fan articles, and the selection of subjects says as much about the author as they do about the performers themselves: chronologically, Velasco first wrote about someone he identified with (Susan Roces), then about those he had known personally, which in a sense amount to the same thing. The articles grow in length as Velasco proceeds to problematize questions of culture and political economy. Before discussing stardom itself, we turn to a section where Velasco foregrounds the issue that lurks behind everything he wrote as an academic – i.e., gender politics, the best thing, he said once, that graduate studies ever gave him. When he first heard me use the word “transgressiveness” as an indicator of progressivity he remarked that he’d always wanted to aspire to that type of ideal, and was glad that it could now be openly acknowledged in contemporary scholarship; I must add that he took the concept much farther than I could have imagined it could go in Philippine film studies.

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Hence under Part 2: Gender Texts he goes to town in imbuing female personae with masculine attributes and vice versa, and objectifies the Filipino male with admirably shameless delight, to the extent of embracing (figuratively in print and, who knows, literally in real life) a veritable stable of “bad” boys. In returning to a consideration of the movie star (Part 3: Star Texts), he discourses with renewed authority, effectively restoring to prominence the real-life reel couple he regarded as king and queen of the make-believe world that had provided him with much-needed solace during his formative years. The collection closes with a large group of articles, Part 4: Film Texts, that in one respect derive directly from his fascination with star personalities; the other respect is the one that also justifies Velasco’s position as our foremost film expert in the new millennium: he could write knowingly about the present, without the need to demonstrate any high-art or film-buff pretension, mainly because he maintained so much fondness for a past he knew first-hand. This section ends with his challenge to both organized and practicing Filipino film critics (often two discrete categories, as it happens nowadays): after demonstrating how to properly evaluate first a festival period and then a calendar year of sustained film practice, Velasco points out, in laypersons’ terms, precisely what makes award-giving and comparative auteurist analyses so dissatisfying – i.e., their practitioners use critical-sounding evaluation as a subterfuge instead of facing up to the manifold challenges and contradictions of genuine critical writing.

All of which brings us back to Velasco’s primary motive for writing – his love for all kinds of media of expression, whether belonging to high art or mass culture. In retrospect it wasn’t just the discursive potentials of local cinema that Velasco approached with this strange (in both senses of unusual and queer) combination of tenderness, acceptance, and rigor. Whenever he reflected on his personal and professional misfortunes, his tendency to break down in private followed by his refusal to protest the many injustices visited on him seemed then like a confirmation of the multiplicity of weaknesses that inexorably brought about his utter marginalization and ultimately his demise. But with this volume in hand, it has become evident that he was determined to fight after all, and the form that his resistance took was the hardest for anyone to muster, more so for someone in his condition: to struggle, to the bitter end if necessary, for love of everyone, and to respond to those who abused him with an even greater dose of forgiveness and understanding.

He died enviably, peacefully in his sleep, just as he had lived unenviably for most of his too-short fifty-nine years (or a full sixty, by East Asian reckoning), constantly worrying where his next red centavo would come from just so that he could write one more article, teach one more class, mentor one more advisee, direct one more script, crack one more joke, celebrate one more friend’s achievement. Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp. is one among several proofs of how generous he had been, to a country, a society, and a university that could not properly figure out just how much he was giving out, so that he could be given in return the basic things he needed in order to attain all that he had ever asked for – a decent living, nothing more. First our Job, then our Christ: he died brokenhearted so that we could all now, if we choose to do so, relish the many delights bequeathed unto us by his selflessness.

[Originally published as “Context” in Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp. (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2009): ix-xiv]

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THE DOLPHY CONUNDRUM

An earlier generation of Pinoy media observers would have thought that the death of Dolphy, once it arrived, would have left behind the issue of his profligacy: the usual tally of the deceased’s offspring and their corresponding mothers alone would already bring up the issue of his sexual insatiability and the potency of his allegedly humongous “secret weapon.” Yet it is a measure of the extent of the Philippines’ cultural maturation that the only controversy left literally in his wake is the question of why he had not been declared a National Artist, the country’s highest official distinction for people in his profession.

His earlier nomination, during the previous round, was supposedly sabotaged by the objection of a highly influential culturatus. The ensuing round of exchanges has been seemingly obsessed with the violation of a confidentiality agreement – a strange and moot assertion, considering that the National Artist selection process is performed as part of a mandate of the national government and is therefore always open to public inquiry. Nevertheless a resolution, as far as one can be determined, has been promised by no less than the President, with his assurance of support for any future recommendation for the award to be handed to the late comedian.

At this point a personal disclosure ought to be made: not so much because of my past association with some of the institutions involved in the controversy, but because of my incomplete coverage of a film artist who I presume to critically evaluate. I can probably count about a dozen Dolphy films that I have seen, and a whole lot of film excerpts, but this would not pass my own test for serious attention to someone’s body of work. Yet for someone with over 220 film titles (not to mention a successful TV crossover) dating to over 60 years back, Dolphy himself might be able to forgive anyone who’d been unable to watch a hundred or more of his own titles.

With the National Artist question, the answer may be parsed as simply and literally as possible: he was a major star (possibly the Philippines’ most prolific one even solely in terms of film projects) and was therefore “national,” and he had possessed sufficient artistry not only in maintaining this status but also in impressing colleagues and (certain) critics, including the official mainstream organization (with which I was also once associated) that had given him a lifetime achievement prize. Yet the next logical question, of whether being both nationally renowned and unquestionably artistic automatically makes one deserving of being called a National Artist, is where a lot of qualifiers have to be raised.

Dolphy had been part of the wave of local stars who wrested control of their careers from the vertically integrated studio system of the 1950s (the so-called First Golden Age) by producing their own projects; one such figure, Fernando Poe, Jr., had already been granted the recognition, while an arguably just-as-vital name, deposed Pinoy President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, may never receive it, because first and foremost, the distinction is inevitably political, and it would simply be more politic to bestow it on Dolphy than on Erap. Yet unlike the major stars who emerged immediately after World War II, Dolphy had been saddled with twin disadvantages that make his triumph more remarkable for its time.

One of those liabilities, poverty, was an acceptable one, in the sense that the democratic system being upheld by the republic (exemplified by the social mobility afforded by media stardom) allowed for individuals to transcend such class-based limitations. The other matter, his East Asianness, was a far trickier situation for anyone to navigate. The war had traumatized the population into an affirmation of the racial stereotyping originally propagated by the early European colonizers – that of distinguishing between the “right” kind of fair-skinned people (Caucasians) and the “wrong” kind (East Asians, who were earlier demonized as pagans and were later imaged as ruthless colonizers). Hence Filipino aspirants to movie stardom had to misrepresent their mestizo features as non-Asian; or, if this were impossible to pull off, then they had to settle for less-profitable second-tier status as villains (e.g. Bruno Punzalan), seductresses (Bella Flores), or comedians, where Dolphy (alongside Chichay, Babalu, and a long list of other names) found – and managed to build on – his niche.

It was certainly no help when newly emerging nationalists with anti-imperialist sentiments sought to critique Philippine culture’s excessive white love by producing xenophobic literature that targeted the local Chinese community. This context helps explain not just Dolphy’s long-term political neutrality (just as Chinese Filipinos were known to support both establishment and opposition candidates during elections) but also why his type of comedy evolved toward a safe, family-friendly, middle-brow variety. Of his few forays with “serious” filmmakers, none had been with Manuel Conde or Ishmael Bernal, the National Artist auteurs who had reputations for scathing social satire. In fact he had tended to fall into the same misconception that the biggest Hollywood clowns, from Charlie Chaplin to Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey, had about serious material: that it had to be unfunny in order to “deserve” respect.

Ironically it was also as a result of this nationalist resurgence that East Asians (Filipinos or otherwise) were finally able to attain star status in local media, starting with the distinctly chinita Vilma Santos all the way through the frankly named Rico Yans, Sandara Parks, and Kim Chius of the present, with his own children deploying his once-suppressed surname; any number of leaders – all the way to Presidents and Cardinals – no longer need to remain silent about their overseas ancestry.

How then should good old Pidol be assessed? His National Artist award will be handed down, barring unforeseen abnormal circumstances, and that would restore some symbolic balance to the excesses in our history of racism, however long-gone this tendency might have been. But it would be far more instructive for his audiences to remain aware of his weaknesses as much as his virtues, and the all-too-human reasons that had forced him to resort to the self-limiting career measures that he, in a sense, had no way of avoiding.

[First published July 12, 2012, in The FilAm]

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THE CARNAL MORAL OF A BRUTAL MIRACLE

One fascinating thing about having been present during the emergence of critical awareness in Philippine cinema was observing how games of auteur favoritism played out: who would be the critics’ pets and how would the rest fare in relation to them? The way the rules were formulated – a series of commentaries by organized critics that built up toward an annual awards ceremony – made for dramatic though ultimately hollow displays as a community of artists would be set one against another, with those who won more trophies regarded as first among their peers. The problem would be not so much the occasional lapse in judgment (Ishmael Bernal losing as director of Manila by Night [1980], Nora Aunor undervalued for some of the best performances in global cinema) as the regressive impact of film awards on cultural understanding; awards could not serve as periodic summations of critical evaluation simply because there is rarely any real criticism behind them. Influence-peddling probably, favoritism definitely, but critical thinking? Only if we accept celeb-fetishism as worthy of serious scholarly consideration.

Marilou Diaz-Abaya was one of the early victims of this still-ongoing practice of intellectual barbarism masquerading as earnest cultural analysis. Emerging fully formed and initiating a so-far unparalleled film series on Philippine femininities, mostly with the same team of close associates providing assistance, she met with dismissive responses from the exact same group of people who should have known best. Her recent death, after an extended bout with breast cancer, had met with a lot of appreciative reminiscences, evidence of the care and humor with which she prepared for the end; yet whether this kind of appreciation will ultimately extend to her body of work – that both remains to be seen and does not excuse the neglect with which her practice had been met. None of her major films (except for two star vehicles on Viva Films) is available on DVD; their restoration might be all that remains, if justice deserves to be served, toward the rehabilitation of her stature as major Pinoy film artist.

In retrospect, it would be easy to see how Diaz-Abaya could be so casually written off. Not only was she young, she had come from financial privilege and so could afford extensive film training, then-unavailable locally. Her circle included some of the most prestigious players the industry had ever seen: Ishmael Bernal mentored her, Jesse Ejercito produced her projects, and Ricardo Lee (the only one still actively practicing his craft) wrote scripts for her. It were as if she had been an interloper, and she had enough self-deprecating humility to preempt everyone in cracking jokes about her sheltered upbringing. Moreover, film practice at the time had attracted the finest talents in the country, facilitated in no small part by the fact that the Marcoses, despite their ruthless control of media, were sufficiently star-struck (Ferdinand won the presidency via biographical blockbusters, Imelda had screen-tested for the studio that produced her husband’s films) to treat film as their fair-haired child, their showcase of progressivity and proof to the world of their cultivation of democratic space.

Thus critics had no lack of talent to uphold, and shelving a relatively young newcomer who came from the “wrong” (that is, the right) side of the tracks would not count for much when so many others and so much else could be celebrated. Lino Brocka could come up with an instantly recognizable global classic in Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975), and Ishmael Bernal could presently respond with Manila by Night, arguably an even more significant contribution. Diaz-Abaya staked her claim to this order of filmic discourse by proffering Moral (1982), which expanded the city-film setting to include the newly formed metropolitan area and focused on women’s issues. Differing from Maynila, Moral sustained the sexual politics and multi-character format of Manila by Night; if the Bernal film still stood heads and shoulders above everything else, then both Maynila and Moral might be seen as its proper bookends, one anticipating and the other upholding the middle production and sharing its stature as major Philippine film confabulations.

Interviewed by phone, Lee recalled how Diaz-Abaya knew the long-term value of their output: Moral was “the only movie where my name and [producer] Jesse Ejercito’s appeared along with hers above the title,” he said, adding how her readiness to share credit extended to a directing class where he handled the writing portion as well as to the joint memoir of their professional collaboration that they had nearly finalized when the end arrived. He explained further why his scripts with her, and her films with him, have marked each other like no other Filipino director-writer team-up had ever had: “No other director treated my material with the openness and care that she did. Some of the materials we tackled were new to her – queerness, prostitution, incest, promiscuity, atheism – but with her I always had the assurance that she would set aside her biases and preferences and come around to the vision in our material.”

What compounds the difficulty of evaluating Diaz-Abaya’s output was her restlessness which, given how limited her time had been, may now appear as an eagerness to cover as much ground as her seemingly boundless energy could allow. I had occasion to interact with her twice, once in graduate school when she dropped by New York on her way home from a European film festival, and another time about a year ago when her cancer had been in remission; each time I was with a “younger Marilou,” first film critic Bliss Cua Lim and then filmmaker Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, and both times it still amazes me to recall how she had no other agenda except to indulge in intelligent exchanges. Earlier she had just finished Milagros (1997) and announced that she felt it was time to tackle films about men: “I’m not sure I’ll be as successful as I had been with [films on] women,” she said, “but I have to take this risk so I can know for sure.” More recently, she had just released her last film project, Ikaw ang Pag-ibig (2011), but she talked with undiminished excitement about teaching, research, writing, and spiritual preparation – everything (except perhaps the last) that I and everyone else I know had been doing.

What will always haunt me about her is my envy about how she never allowed any limitation to stand in her way: she consorted with far older adults when she was young, opted for a profession dominated by biological men, ran with a crowd far removed from her genteel and well-heeled origins, pursued topics and challenges way beyond her comfort zone, and kept looking forward even with death staring her down for years. She welcomed the revitalization of film practice via the shift to digital technology, but was never remiss in cautioning against the dangers of excess privilege – and who better to know about this than her? In one of several excellent interviews that have cropped up all over Philippine news outlets, she made mention of how indie-film production could entrap its practitioners; after affirming how respect for the audience should be “non-negotiable,” she proceeded to explain the merits of the currently most popular (and consequently most derided) local genre, the romantic comedy. This was a lesson that her generation of filmmakers learned the hard way: that the way to improve a much-abused mode of practice is not to reject it, but rather to seize it and transform it so that the people who attend to it will benefit from patronizing it.

Marilou Diaz-Abaya had always connected and insisted on learning and never hesitated to share what she had. In a too-short lifespan she had earned much more than a beautiful farewell, but in the meanwhile that is all we had been able to give, even as the harder long-term work of revaluation lies ahead.

[First published December 12, 2012, as “Marilou Diaz-Abaya, 57: Rule Breaker, Risk Taker” in The FilAm]

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A NATIONAL ARTIST WE DESERVE

Of whether Nora Cabaltera Villamayor, legally a senior citizen of the Philippines and permanent resident of the US, is an accomplished artist there can be no doubt. One might inspect the record of her multimedia accomplishments – as recording artist, television performer, stage actress, concert act, and film producer and thespian – and concede that she may have excelled in many, if not most, of these areas; one might even be a serious observer of any of these fields of endeavor (as I have been) and assert that no one else comes close, although many certainly aspire to her level of achievement.

Not surprisingly, the rejection by President Benigno Aquino III of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts’s endorsement of Aunor has occasioned a number of impassioned and articulate responses, starting with social networks, by now filtering through mass media, and inevitably destined to land in scholarly discussions, with the Philippines’s own major indexed humanities journal, Kritika Kultura of Ateneo de Manila University, slated to publish a special section devoted to her. (Personal disclosure: I am in charge of this specific project, as forum editor.) The nature of the reactions should not surprise anyone attuned to Philippine popular culture: the late-1960s working-class devotees who demanded for, and got, the teen idols they wanted have since grown along with them, many gentrifying and positioned in various capacities all over the globe.

It would have been instructive for the president’s culture team to have looked into the origin of what National Artist for Literature and Magsaysay Awardee Nick Joaquin described as a phenomenon, in one of his landmark journalism articles. For way before the 1986 middle-class people-power revolt that restored the oligarchy that Aquino effectively represents, an earlier, limited, though genuinely working-class form of people power, comprising mostly rural migrants working as factory hands and domestic labor, discovered the pleasures of pop-culture consumerism and ignored the dictates of the then-already enfeebled studio system of the so-called First Golden Age of Philippine cinema.

Rather than flock to the presentations of the typical European-featured and bourgeoisified talents then still being insistently launched by the major studios, the new urbanites, still capable of earning disposable income without seeking overseas employment, used their peso-votes to signify what types of idols they preferred. Today’s intellectuals replicate an error of historical interpretation when they position Aunor and her teen-star rival, Vilma Santos, as belonging to the native-vs.-mestizo division that observers during that time believed was at play: although Santos first emerged as a child star during the waning years of the Golden Age, her fairness did not conform to the anti-Asian requisites of the time; grown-ups with distinctly Oriental features like hers would have been relegated to serious secondary roles as male villains or femmes fatales or, at best, comic roles (where, instructively, the biggest star, Dolphy, had to suppress his Chinese surname).

Hence the masses’ new choices represented iconographies long withheld by the elite-controlled studio system, with the two biggest stars no longer male, and either morena or chinita (as their types used to be termed). By the arrival of the 1970s, the more Western-looking types accommodated this new demand for transformative appearances by exploring unusual options, including the pornography genre now remembered as bomba – also a reference to then-emerging student and labor unrest.

Since then this social experiment in discovering new types of media performers for popular consumption has either ended or changed, depending on what perspective one opts to adopt. East Asian-type candidates have managed to swing the door wide open, thanks to the example initiated by Santos and followed through by the middle-brow Chinoy-ethnocentric efforts of Philippine cinema’s most successful producer, Lily Yu Monteverde. But proof that this progressive window has also long slammed shut lies in the fact that no other brown-skinned female star has emerged since Aunor.[1]

To confound matters for the race- and class-conscious arbiters of social acceptability, Aunor’s Otherness was too close for comfort to her mass adulators’ condition – i.e., like them she was born poor and far from the capital city, enduring the then-standard harsh treatment reserved for those perceived as unable to call on socially influential contacts for protection, cursed with disproportionate ambition and fated to rely on wit, talent, and industry to attain her dreams. Not surprisingly, for the period of what might count as her on-the-job internship, she displayed an earnest studiousness, carefully enunciating her song lyrics and delivering over-rehearsed renditions of even the most casual lines of dialogue and investing whatever spare funds she had in art or period film projects that baffled her fans and accounted for her occasional impoverishment (by movie-star standards).

Nevertheless, when her artistic maturity had peaked, roughly toward the close of the 1970s, the fruits of such unmatched discipline and struggle went on glorious display and earned her an entirely new generation of followers, many of them academically trained in cultural and media appreciation. I remember suspecting her then of finagling her performance record by paying attention to only her serious projects (as other major performers and directors were wont to do), and watching the several potboilers she appeared in during her many periods of financial difficulty: to my amazement, each one, without exception, was stamped with a level of expertise that performing arts majors would have killed for.

This background also helps explain her disdain for the trappings of social respectability, having realized (as most long-lived artists do) that the widest range of experiential possibilities can always be harnessed in the service of interpretive craft. Small wonder that when she had the assurance of serious coverage during her current career resurgence, she spelled it out for the world, without apologies: chemical dependencies, multiple (including same-sex) partners, neuroses and anxieties, an inexplicable wanderlust, regret in the innocence of the now-lost past and hope in the uncertainties of the future. It was a source of amusement for me to see her fans scrambling to rationalize her statements, with a few of them abandoning their devotion to her because of their newfound fundamentalist religious convictions.

Less amusing was the spectacle of a supposedly enlightened presidential administration decreeing, in effect, that it did not want to be represented by such a powerfully transgressive figure. Its ignorance of the artist’s temperament gets exposed when we look up the list of names who had already made it to the ranks of the country’s officially endorsed masters and see that the best among them had made use of similar methods of exploring hidden or difficult truths and realities. The kind of sensibility that counts a public record like Aunor’s as contaminated by her less-than-“exemplary” lifestyle encourages medieval institutions like the Catholic Church to attempt a takeover of official cultural functions; worse, it plays into the dangerous oligarchic fantasy that a commodified, infantile, unexceptional mass culture is the perfectly satisfactory consequence of a wholesome moral existence.

Note

[1] In fact, a reversal of the casting of mestizas in sex films seems to have occurred, with brown-skinned actresses such as Maribel Lopez and Sarsi Emmanuelle (featured together in Elwood Perez’s Silip [1985]) and Elizabeth Oropesa “permitted” to star in such productions. In fact, this merely reflects the more libertarian values inherent in these projects, as well as the need to cast as wide a net as possible, mestizas still welcome, in order to meet the demand for such willing talent. Also worth noting is the possibly not-incidental fact that these actresses remained capable of delivering outstanding performances.

[First published June 21, 2014, in The FilAm]

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Book Texts – Small Worm, Big Apple

Commissioned by a student publication during my exchange stint in Korea. I knew then that other folk would be paying attention, so I did a roundabout way of name-dropping the previous foreign locale I’d lived and worked in.

Small Worm, Big Apple

I could have been one of the many jinxes that started upending the Paradise that was New York City since the nineties. The World Trade Center was first bombed a few months after I arrived and collapsed a few months before I finally left for home. A demented tourist shot a number of sightseers at the observation deck of the EmpireState building – a structure that loomed right outside the office where I worked for almost eight years. An unemployed immigrant also shot several passengers on a train leaving the city for the suburbs. The stock market plunged twice, first because of the Asian economic recession, then because of the overvaluation of dot-com shares.

In all instances except the last, foreigners were considered responsible for what happened. Yet this was one of the contradictions about living in that city, as opposed to living elsewhere in North America: everyone there was a foreigner, or had descended from one. Of course virtually all Americans are non-native, but it seemed that only when they get to New York do they care to point out how, at some point in the past, they actually belonged elsewhere.

The place had a certain way of exacting payback. I was supposed to be able to finish my studies, my share of the all-American dream, through the all-American method of working hard. What didn’t show up in the equation was that the money I’d earn, the largest I’d ever make in my life up to that point, would amount to less than nothing in the face of the exorbitant cost of living. I eventually wound up with my graduate degrees, plus a few thousand dollars’ worth of student loans.

In the face of such an unwelcome and unmitigated disaster, how did I manage to muddle through? If I thought then, as I do now, that the place was just as badly (or even worse) hit than I was, that would have been no consolation. Once I left the city, I’d have to wait out two years working in the Philippine national university before I could find a job that paid decently enough to pay off the loans.

The answer would be self-evident enough to anyone living in New York. The place itself has enough talent and diversity to make even the poorest resident occasionally feel lucky to be alive. A master violinist from a major Chinese orchestra, a black doo-wop trio with remarkable timing and perfect harmony, a female performance artist who could assume unusual poses for long stretches, Peruvian musicians invoking the Andes through their charango and panpipes, and so on…and these were just the characters one could encounter performing for loose change in the subway.

When the major opera houses announced their new seasons, I’d be in line for my student-priced tickets, each one a tenth of what a Broadway musical would cost me. One of the little secrets of long-time “cultured” New Yorkers is that they never go to Broadway, only to the opera, although my reason for attending was that I was a student of the spectacle (of cinema, but before that, historically speaking, there was only the stage). When my out-of-town friends would insist on Broadway shows then complain about how backward the stories were and how old-fashioned their politics played out, I’d try to convince them to try an opera, which would have the same brand of outmoded ideological positions, but with better music, finer singing, and grander staging. Besides, I’d say, Broadway’s origins lay in a lesser form, the Viennese operetta. No go, though; seemed like people in the rest of the world would not respect any of their friends who went to New York and spent their time on presentations that did not feature pop stars and current music.

I always envied those who’d been to the great museums of Europe, but every so often the New York institutions would mount retrospectives that would be the equivalent of the usually-dead artists coming back to rework their magic: Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, the circle of French surrealists, and of course the shock artists whose exhibits Rudy Giuliani attempted to thwart. In my specialization, I’d taken the number of free and discounted film screenings so much for granted that, when my home university asked me for my first-year viewing list, I was amazed to jot down, based on my notes, brochures, and tickets, over 300 titles of the widest possible array of movies, from high art to trash, from festival favorite to disreputable pre-Disneyfied Times Square run, from fun genre sample to structural-materialist cerebration (my favorite, which I made sure to watch twice in its entirety, was two hours of Michael Snow whirling his camera on various axes from atop a Canadian mountain).

There’d be food my friends and I would treat ourselves to when we had the spare funds, categorized according to nationality: Greek (authentic but also occasionally the code word for all-around New York diner), Italian, Mexican, French, Spanish, Ethiopian, Malaysian, Indian, Korean, and the always-reliable Chinese. Wines could be found for as low as $3 a bottle, so I could indulge my alcoholic depression by pretending I was learning vintage and vinification.

All in all the range and breadth of distractions would be enough to make you believe the place was worth living in despite its inadequate services and pugnacious population (and hey, I was one of them too for a time). Enough to sometimes forget what you originally came for, in fact. The first time my late father saw me again, he said: “I can’t believe it – I never thought I’d live to see the day when you grew old.” He said I reminded him of Rip van Winkle, a New York character created by a New York author. And at that point I knew the dream was over. I was finally back home.

[First published May 2, 2005, as “Growing Old in New York (Or Small Worm, Big Apple)” in The Hallym Post]

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Book Texts – Ordinary People: Movie Worker

To commemorate its second anniversary issue, National Midweek announced an “Ordinary People” omnibus feature and asked four authors (including me, as well as Rudy Villanueva, Juaniyo Arcellana, and Melanie Manlogon) to detail our ironically non-ordinary experiences in the arena of labor. A rather cringe-inducing tagline, accompanying an inapposite TV studio setting, announced: “As continuity person, his work was to record everything that went on during the shooting. But he also carried camera equipment, made coffee for the star, parried the verbal abuse of irritable crew members. And he was a University of the Philippines graduate.” I loved my work at the magazine so much it didn’t matter. Curiously, the fantasy I expressed toward the end of the article – that of local film (and media) work acquiring a semblance of professionalism in terms of academic preparation – eventually came to pass, not exactly in the way I anticipated, but then such are the vagaries of fate. [Published November 4, 1987, on pp. 15-16.]

Midweek Movie Worker

Confession of the week: I was an ordinary movie person. Actually I still am, were it not for the impression that film commentators hold significant influence over the industry – a consensus held by most industry personalities including, not surprisingly, film commentators. But to get to the point: I once actually started wondering what all the hoopla over the position of film critic was. I’d been writing more or less regularly on local cinema since the turn of the decade, and had a membership (and occasional officer status) in the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino [Filipino Film Critics Circle], plus employment in the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, to show for it.

Still, there remained that disturbing atmosphere during movie occasions – previews, premieres, parties, and other such assemblages outside of the physical processes of movie-making – that anyone who could be present only at the presentation of a work could not actually have been involved with it and was therefore, for all intents and purposes, an outsider. A critic, for that matter, got away with slightly better treatment, some form of deference really, that to my mind has lost its original basis for existence, but that ought to be another story.

So in 1984, when the University of the Philippines announced the opening of a bachelor’s degree in film – the first not just in the country but in the immediate Asian region as well – I lost no time in re-applying for student status at the mass communication institute which was handling the course program. (Not quite accurate: I lost an entire semester, having learned of the program’s existence exactly when the ’84-85 academic year started, too late to arrange for my return to school.)

I had the advantage of holding an earlier degree (journalism, batch ’79) at the institute, plus the determination to finish as fast as possible whatever the cost, and maybe the first batch wasn’t so appreciative of the distinctions in store; they pointed out my exemption from the thesis requirement (already fulfilled by my earlier degree), but I retorted to myself that, unlike them, I had to finish a final individual film project, which the program’s coordinators justified as my equivalent of a production thesis.[1]

Anyway there I stood, for more than a year the only qualified film applicant in the history of Philippine education, willing to undergo whatever it would take to make me a part of the movie system at last.

What lay ahead, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. A major outfit sounded out a call for assistants in production, and as far as I knew, I was the only one who responded then. More than a month of follow-ups afterward, I finally got in – as an apprentice, I was forewarned, and for the rival of the company I had applied with. An apprentice, I was made to understand, gets free food but no pay, and is responsible for…well, whatever comes up during production. Break a leg then.

Someone who took charge instructed me to record everything that went on during the shooting – the blocking of everyone and everything on the set (including the lights), the position of everything that appeared in the camera viewfinder, the lines of dialog, the movement of actors, atmosphere people (a euphemism for extras), and physical objects, not to mention the usual details of date and sequence and scene numbers, location and performer(s) – for which I needed to continually refer to the script, a copy of which was provided me much, much later. Continuity, the job was called, although I distinctly recall carrying camera and related equipment, preparing coffee for a certain performer, and parrying the verbal abuse of several particularly irritable crew members. Plus I had to buy a stopwatch (I borrowed one instead) to time the individual takes, and reproduce as many copies of a certain form on which to keep my records.

I finally was able to plead for the reimbursement of the two reams of continuity forms that I had to mimeograph, and the film’s director, who provided me with invaluable recollections of the previously flourishing regional cinema with which he’d been involved, batted for a consolatory sum of money that the producers provided to defray part of my transportation expenses. At this point the creditors, who extended financial assistance so that I could be able to finish my second degree, were impatient for some material results. Without the benefit of clear thinking, I agreed to replace a would-have-been batch mate in a big-budget semi-period piece. As it turned out, the guy and his group mates edged me out in a more substantial fund-raising project, while the movie project I got into got shelved for alleged shortage of funds.

To the rescue came the muse I had abandoned. A colleague in writing, now into editing (while I was contemplating the feasibility of going insane), asked me to write for the publication she was handling. On what? I asked. The movies, she answered, since that’s where you’re now. I lay aside insanity for the moment but it arrived anyway in another form. The first production outfit I had applied with immediately after graduation this time offered me a respectable-enough designation in an out-of-town project. By then I was already making twice as much as the offer (which, I was assured, was already somewhat beyond standard rates) just writing for the publication and a television show on the side. When the movie I said no to got released, it made good box-office business and was reportedly its producer’s critical favorite, while the publication I had cast my lot with folded up and the TV show shut down.

Hope springs eternal even for those who never learn, but I’ll respect whatever way you interpret that: my alma mater somehow remembered it had an only graduate lying around (close to the literal sense) somewhere, who’d not only be the only academically qualified film worker in the country but also the only qualified film instructor as well.

So coming full circle now, what easier way to augment the predictably pitiful (but not for me, you bet) income that teachers receive? Why nothing else, or nothing less, than good old-fashioned semi-scholarly commentary on films. At least, this way I get to torment not only my students but my readers as well, and with a little bit of luck and a considerable amount of self-delusion, even the industry might consider restructuring its professional set-up in lieu of an oncoming onslaught by starry-eyed and financially secure film graduates – and doesn’t that add up quite logically, dramatically even, with this historical era of countless coup attempts? Anyway, till that moment arrives, I’ll be happy where I am. I guess.

Note

[1] After a few other (expected) false starts, the production thesis became a viable option in the eventually upgraded College of Mass Communication. Extremely few undergraduate candidates, in fact, choose the research option.

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The First Glory Awards (2017): A Mini-Album

It’s difficult to tell a complicated story, especially one that involves a lot of other individuals and a major formative institution. This will be an attempt to recount a series of occurrences, some of them subjective in nature. It began when the Alumni Association of my alma mater, the College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines, announced its own counterpart of the university-wide Alumni Awards. Since the event was sponsored by the family of the CMC’s founding Dean, Gloria David Feliciano (unrelated to me), it was going to be rather awkwardly named the Glory Awards. There were supposed to be ten selections for the first edition, and since I kept up with news about the college via social network, I caught the call for nominees the day it came out.

When a former editor and journalism-school classmate of mine contacted me about it, I was inclined to say no. I’d already been feted at the previous year’s FACINE Film Festival in San Francisco, and to me that was a signal honor. Several senior film critics from the Philippines hold loads of distinctions from all over, but none of their life-achievement prizes specified film criticism and scholarship, until FACINE’s Gawad Lingap Sining [Art Nurturer Award] spelled it out for me. I even prepared an extensive lecture, the festival’s first in nearly a quarter-century since its founding, delivered at the City College of San Francisco’s auditorium (famed for its Diego Rivera mural).

But my colleague, Daisy Catherine Mandap, told me to do it for the sake of old friends, since it would be an occasion to get our batch together at the UP Journalism Club. I said I’d do it mainly for her, gathered the materials, forwarded them, and forgot all about it. In late October I got word that I had won, and the number of awardees was reduced from ten to eight, making it an even rarer prize. I conveyed my willingness to participate, bought a roundtrip ticket to attend the November 11 ceremony, and tried to refocus on the several writing assignments that spilled over from the spring-semester half-sabbatical that made writing in Manila such a pain in the neck because of internet sluggishness, lack of support for authors, and overpriced cost of living. The motherboard of my three-year-old state-of-the-art laptop died from too many stops and starts and reinstallations, and I was reduced to making even older netbooks try to do the same tasks. (I could only buy a replacement machine in Korea, where my credit card could allow for installment payments.)

Three real-world factors blindsided me as I mentally conditioned myself for the awards ceremony. First, the faculty dormitory where I’d stayed since arriving about a decade ago for my tenure-track position announced that it was shutting down for renovation by the end of the year, and would be reopening as a university hotel. That meant I had to prepare to find my own housing for the first time in Korea, with all the concomitant complications that involved (starting with exorbitant down-payment fees). Then the results of my annual physical exam at the university hospital arrived, indicating that the gallbladder stone that I’d been, well, maintaining for a decade or so suddenly and inexplicably doubled in size, approaching what the doctor described as a “danger” threshold. My physician told me how fortunate I was that the condition remained benign through my sabbatical, since he knew the manifold troubles I would confront by requiring a surgical procedure in the Philippines.

The surgeon assigned to foreign-language patients responded to my request for a laparoscopy by specifying the day right before the Glory Awards event. It was supposed to be an outpatient procedure, but I couldn’t imagine myself rushing from the hospital to the airport, wounds still fresh, and going onstage and hobnobbing with folks while checking for bloodstains on my shirt. So I requested, urgently, a week’s delay at the hospital – then the third “development” occurred: the organizers of an out-of-town Korean conference on Asian culture, to which I had made a long-standing commitment to participate, contacted me to say that it would happen … during the weekend after the Glory Awards, the same period I had planned to have my postponed operation. When I revised my request for another hospital date, I knew that the staff could have taken this as another of my endless shifts in schedules, and hesitated to respond to my request, considering all the difficulties (from additional tests to scheduling assistants) that this particular arrangement entailed.

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But this was not entirely the reason I felt inclined to postpone my roundtrip to Manila. As the day of the event approached, the reality that the institution I used to work with, from which I felt estranged, crept up and slowly, steadily engulfed me. The fact that Daisy Mandap considered my nomination and win her personal mission as a friend was key to this sentiment. A few years earlier, the college called for nominees for its ballyhooed Gawad Plaridel [Plaridel Award] for the category of community journalism. The last time I worked with Daisy (who’d gone to law school after journalism), at the now-defunct Business Day, she assisted in the collective-bargaining efforts of the employees’ union, continuing to represent them even after they decided to go on strike. As a new hiree, I could not qualify for union membership – and needed the income to repay my undergraduate student loans. Daisy told me it wouldn’t be an issue for her and her allies, which was all the assurance I could ask for. I wound up leaving anyway, because of an exploitative arrangement that a TV host had with the publication, cornering me as a personal researcher while plagiarizing my reports wholesale – including weird structural touches I would introduce to see if the program would still follow, and of course it did (the fact that the episodes I wrote won various local and global awards for the host was instrumental in developing my contempt for pretentious, privileged, hypocritical socialites).

Business Day solved its union troubles by shuttering the newspaper and reopening it under a different-though-recognizable name, BusinessWorld, but Daisy found herself blacklisted by the publishers of major local dailies, including the very person who became the first winner of the Gawad Plaridel. She and her husband, Leo Deocadiz, left for Hong Kong, and set up The Sun, a publication with its own foundation aimed primarily at assisting Overseas Filipino Workers. I managed to convince her that we could argue for OFWs as a transient, foreign-based community, and she responded with plans of how to use the Gawad Plaridel prize money for the education of OFW members and their children. She of course became the frontrunner for that year’s award, but after the deadline for announcing the winner came and went, I knew (from a couple of decades of working in the college) that something unsavory was afoot.

A few days later the evidence rolled out. All the nominees were declared undeserving, and a new category (in fact an old one), print journalism, was announced, immediately after which a winner – a friend of mine and, more significantly, of the college officials – was declared. I would not begrudge anyone a prize that she or he deserved, but I also believe that those who’ve had their share of recognition don’t need to be grasping for more. The officials happened to belong to an award-giving organization masquerading as a film critics group, and the Plaridel roster wound up affirming the same set of winners that the supposedly separate group (whose chair that year was also dean of the college) had selected. Something like saying that my mother’s choices are excellent because my father opts for them too, although it’s best if you don’t realize that they’re married.

This was the reason why the acceptance speech that the Glory Awards organizers asked me to draft kept detouring into a rejection announcement. In the end, with my surgery schedule still unresolved, my exchanges with the awards team approaching conflict territory, and my admissions of dismay worrying my closest friends, I decided to cancel the trip and pay the penalty fee that the airline warned me it would charge. The ceremony went well, from all appearances, and I was deeply moved by friends’ expressions of support. I may be able to admit that I might have been glad to attend, but I’m even surer that, with my killjoy mind-set, the people at the event were much better off without me. I only note here what I told some social-media friends: that unlike Daisy and many others, I’ve been too good at bridge-burning, and a day for reckoning with all that will surely come my way in future. The college, to begin with, is and is not its alumni association, although to my mind, several people now considered senior faculty deserve as harsh a treatment as history will be able to bestow on them – with Daisy’s Gawad Plaridel case just one in a long list of depredations.

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Meanwhile, to fulfill the post’s title, here be the (unnecessarily extensive) nomination document, as well as a few highlights from the event (kindly click on any of the pics for an enlargement):

Philippine Star announcement (above, left; photo by Jun R. Cortez); Pelikulove greeting (above, right; courtesy of Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil).

Personalized notebooks from Ruby Villavicencio Paurom.

Present Glory Awardees (above, left; photo by Joy Buensalido); absent Glory Awardee’s friends (above, right), comprising, left to right, Leo Deocadiz, Daisy Mandap, Ruby Villavicencio Paurom (photo owner), and Bayani Santos Jr.

Lower set of pics above, left to right: Martin Posadas Marfil, Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, Bayani Santos Jr., Marianne Dayrit Sison, Ruby Villavicencio Paurom, Daisy Catherine Mandap, & Reggie Madriaga Capuno (all photos by Tita C. Valderama).

University of the Philippines Journalism Club circa late 1970s (from the collection of Martin Posadas Marfil).

Video prepared by Alex Arellano; soundtrack by Noisy Neighbors Inc.; narrated by JB Tapia.

Á!

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Source Exchange for Review of Respeto

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

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

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

From FB Messenger

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

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

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

From FB Messenger

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

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

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

From FB Messenger

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

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

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

From FB Messenger

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

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

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From FB Messenger

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

From FB Messenger [sent later]

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

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

Hope this helps!

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

[Sgd.] Treb Monteras II
Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Á!

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Source Exchange for “The Transnational Pastime”

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

Saturday, February 25, 2017, 9:28 PM

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

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

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

Saturday, February 25, 2017, 5:02 AM

Joel [from text-file attachment]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, February 25, 2017, 8:21 AM

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

Monday, February 27, 2017, 9:53 PM

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017, 4:25 AM

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017, 6:49 AM

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

Thursday, March 2, 2017, 4:42 PM

Joel [from text-file attachment]

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

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

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

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

Answers to your 2nd batch of questions, sir.

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

Joel
No prob if you have further queries, Paul.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017, 9:39 PM

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

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

Thursday, March 9, 2017, 1:31 AM

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

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

Wednesday, Apr 12, 2017, 2:26 AM

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 3, 2017, 9:45 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Á!

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