Cinema Moralia

Robert Nery

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Kidlat Tahimik’s utopianism can’t be slotted into Marxian ideological boxes. Robert Nery explains why the filmmaker is a unique critic of the culture industry

The Utopia of Film: Cinema and its Futures in Godard, Kluge, and Tahimik
By Christopher Pavsek
New York: Columbia University Press, 2013

In the book Dialectic of Enlightenment, written in 1942 and first published in 1947, a seminal text of Frankfurt School Marxism, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer make the surprising claim that enlightenment, which the European 18th century saw as the work of reason, is  “founded” on the domination of nature and human beings. An earth “radiant with triumphant calamity” is what the logic of efficiency—or science as we know it—oversees, rather than freedom from fear and oppression: a plausible assertion when we take into account the genocidal horrors of the 20th century. Where the Dialectic of Enlightenment—abstract, airless, yet impassioned—still demands sociological attention is in relation to the culture industry, an idea of which the book introduced. The culture industry is the production and distribution, by mechanical or electronic reproductive technology, of artistic commodities: music, the cinema, literature, works of visual art, etc. Adorno and Horkheimer are clear about their antagonism to the culture industry:

Culture today is infecting everything with sameness. Film, radio and magazines form a system. Each branch of culture is unanimous within itself and all are unanimous together… All mass culture under monopoly is identical… Technical rationality today is the rationality of domination… For the present the technology of the culture industry confines itself to standardization and mass production and sacrifices what once distinguished the logic of the work [of art] from that of society.1

Christopher Pavsek’s recent book, The Utopia of Film, follows in Adorno and Horkheimer’s wake. A study of the utopian desire in three filmmakers, Jean-Luc Godard, Alexander Kluge, and the Filipino filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik, it has three sections: one each on Godard, Tahimik and Kluge. They have been chosen because their attitude to filmmaking itself exemplifies the social critique their films constitute: All three work in resistance to the culture industry, and their filmmaking can be seen as exemplifying their conception of an ideal society. In the films Pavsek discusses, he traces the outline of the utopia each work implies in its dissatisfaction with the status quo. Godard, the eldest artist of the three, is certainly one of the most important artists of 20th-century Europe. His first feature, Breathless, came out in 1959, and his work through the ’60s—Alphaville, Bande á part, Contempt, Masculin-Feminín, Weekend, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, among them—inspired and exhilarated other filmmakers who have also become famous, like Pasolini and Kluge. Towards the end of the ’60s, Godard’s work became more and more a weave of fictional sketch, philosophical monologue, documentary, and visual text. After 1968, working with the Dziga Vertov collective, he moved into a radical Left, or “Maoist,” phase for a few years, then moved away from it, while always keeping faith with the European Left of the ’60s. In the last two decades, his work has become hermetic. Pavsek gives us close readings of two late films: Germany Year Zero and Film Socialism, two works that reaffirm the socialist ideal or what Godard believes this ideal to be.

Pavsek is equally attuned to Kluge, an artist also formed by European New Left, a literary writer and social theorist as well as filmmaker. In his collection of short stories The Devil’s Blind Spot (from the 500 stories of which 173 have been translated into English), Kluge writes that among his “teachers are the philosophers of the Frankfurt School of CRITICAL THEORY (Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer)” who introduced him “to the Dialectic of Enlightenment” [Kluge’s capitals]. Having only seen two films by Kluge,Yesterday’s Girl, and Artists at the Big Top, and a long time ago (they were exhilarating), I cannot have much to say about Pavsek’s chapter on him.

Kidlat Tahimik, also known as Eric de Guia, was born in Baguio City in 1942. He took a Masters in Business Administration at Wharton, and worked from 1968 to 1972 in Paris in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). His most famous film, Ang Mga Mababangong Bangungot orPerfumed Nightmare, was released in 1977. Apart from this work, his best-known films are Turumba and I Am Furious Yellow. Perfumed Nightmare is a combination of fable-like fiction and documentary footage used for allegorical ends: a work of extraordinary perception and wit and idiosyncratic imagination. The bare narrative of this complex yet humorous film is that of a naïve young man who is plucked from his small Philippine town by an American businessman (performed with a German accent) and transported to Paris, where he is given the job of replenishing the American’s bubble-gum machines scattered all over the city, including some in Pere Lachaise Cemetery. After his travels in Europe, he returns home disillusioned, whistles up a typhoon, rides on its back as it blows away “the European dignitaries and heads of state who have assembled to bid his boss a fond farewell.”

Much of the academic commentary on this film has taken issue with the detail but not the general appropriateness of Fredric Jameson’s influential (post-)Marxist reading of the work in The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (1992). Pavsek’s reading of Perfumed Nightmare, Turumba,and I Am Furious Yellow (the major films) is a late contribution to this post-Marxist line of interpretation.2 He pays the greatest exegetical attention to I Am Furious Yellow, a neglected work. (Unfortunately, the negative and rough cut of Memories of Overdevelopment, about Magellan’s Filipino slave and guide, has decayed from too many typhoon seasons.) Important questions are raised about some of Tahimik’s attitudes—his nostalgia for an intact native culture, for example. Pavsek’s exegesis, mostly sympathetic—making explicit the political or ethical implications of the films—provides what Filipinos seem unwilling or unable to give themselves or others: a discussion of Philippine art in terms that go beyond our particular social history.

Adorno and Horkheimer saw the increasing importance of the culture industry in molding the consent of the masses in the advanced capitalist countries, and they were skeptical of the proletariat and its dictatorship as well as of the imminent collapse of capitalism. They rejected the story of inevitable and obligatory technological progress. Nonetheless, the Critical Theory they founded retains certain core Marxist presuppositions that Tahimik’s work implicitly rejects (or so I believe). Central among them is the premise that human emancipation, the aim of social progress, is the increasing independence of the individual from other human beings: To be dependent on another is to be dominated by him—a premise fundamental both to Marxism and to the libertarian strain in liberalism. These presuppositions lead Pavsek to misconstrue some things in Tahimik’s films, while other things fall into a blindspot. The problem begins at the beginning, in his description of Tahimik’s method of filmmaking. Pavsek writes:

In one way or another, openly or implicitly, Godard, Tahimik, and Kluge subscribe to an idea of utopia in which the hope for and aspiration toward the establishment of a social utopia is deeply bound up with the commitment to unfolding the promises contained in the history of film.

Having said this (in his “Introduction”), he quotes Tahimik on filmmaking:

Making a film is like taking a long trip. The film voyager can load up with a full tank and bring a credit card along to insure completion of the voyage in as short a time as possible. The voyager can also load up with a few cups of gasoline and drive until he runs out and scrounge around for subsequent cups of gas to get to his destination, without worrying about how long it takes to complete his voyage… The length of the trip […] is a matter of choice depending on the combination of ingredients – inspiration, resources, tools, working materials available, personal circumstances like family or emotional disturbances, etc.

The filmmaker can either follow:

the dictum “time is money,”…or allow time to be his ally and open up to cosmic inspirations provided by a relatively free time frame.3

Pavsek takes Tahimik’s remarks to mean an “ethic of self-determination,” that “borders on a Sartrean doctrine of authentic choice, that one live a life as if one were free,” regardless of circumstance. I don’t see that they do, for these remarks don’t say that the filmmaker is always free to choose despite the circumstances and must, moreover, make a choice, but say, rather, that what he chooses depends on the circumstances. Rather than an ethic of quasi-Sartrean self-determination, these remarks suggest that we should give up a certain idea of self-determination. What they propose is not that I must choose to be the self I am, as one possibility among others. Against the ambition to realize a preconception of myself, they laud the choice to respond to what present time and circumstance—or cosmic (and social) history—open up as possibilities. Presumably, in choosing the “cups of gasoline” method, what I become is a collaboration between the cosmos and myself. If I don’t choose to be this way, then the films I make are probably going to be generic. At any rate, they won’t be cosmically inspired. I may be reading too much into Tahimik’s remarks, but I also catch the suggestion in them that, in this venture, I should let go of the idea that I can be independent of other people. For I cannot succeed without depending on others.

Here, the sovereign self, freely charging expenses to his credit card but without the money in his account to cover them, is deflated; he turns out to be small-minded. This deflation is consistent with Tahimik’s disbelief in that view of human emancipation which Marxism shares with libertarian liberalism. The classic Marxist believes, moreover, that the emancipation of labor makes possible human emancipation in general. The endless development of the forces of production, of human technological ingenuity, by transforming our economic relations, will bring about a society which—in Marx’s inspiring description—gives to each according to his needs and receives from each according to his abilities. Economic development is both inevitable and obligatory. (Personally, I find it hard to imagine what a communist society, one fitting Marx’s description, could be. A society of creative artists has been suggested. But artists are notoriously competitive, and they are not equally good; there will always be depressed or envious second-raters and resentful has-beens. A society of creative artists could be extremely unpleasant.) Implicitly, Tahimik rejects this vision of emancipation by labor, of the world as a giant workhouse. Running through his films is a critique not only of advanced capitalism but also of the Marxist vision. His white carabao, contrary to nature, beautiful but inside “cold and aggressive”—which makes ominous appearances in Perfumed Nightmare—is the ancestral totem of both industrial capitalism and the future lit by Labour.

Pavsek’s reconstruction of the filmmaker’s artful thinking is a smaller, more cramped habitation than it should be. What is invisible—to change the metaphor—in this reading of the films is their criticism of the trans-Marxist presuppositions Pavsek brings to them. (Imagine a mystical Catholic exegesis of a text that unbeknownst to the exegete is a piece of Hindu Vedanta theology. The overlap between Christian and Hindu theology explains the interpretation’s coherence and plausibility.) The issue of technology is where the misunderstanding comes to a head. Tahimik celebrates what he calls people-powered technology; he celebrates artisanship. This is a recurrent intention in his films. In Perfumed Nightmare, he manages to be present when German craftsmen install the last copper onion dome, hand-made, on a small-town tower in Germany; in Paris, he laments the vanishing of the street food markets where artisanal products were sold; in one scene, neighbors build a bamboo house without nails; in another, a jeepney workshop becomes, through clever editing, a percussion orchestra. People power is contrasted with industrial technology, and economies of people power with what the industrial technology makes possible: mass consumerism. Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité, Hypermarché (or the hypermarket)—these are what Tahimik sees carved on the Paris façade of the Church of Humanity founded by Auguste Comte. Pavsek reconstructs this part of the filmmaker’s artful thinking by taking up an idea from Adorno. He quotes from the latter:

“the alteration of the technical composition of capital” is prolonged within those [subjects] encompassed, and indeed constituted, by the technological demands of the production process. The organic composition of manis growing. That which determines subjects as means of production and not as living purposes, increases with the proportion of machines to variable capital.4

Pavsek takes this revisionist Marxist argument to be the substance of Tahimik’s critique of industrial technology. The trouble with this interpretation is that some living purposes are bad, and Adorno doesn’t indicate which ones are good. Clearly, Tahimik’s reasons for preferring certain kinds of technology over others go beyond the ratio of machinery to labor power. A recurring motif in his work is the creative recycling of waste. Presumably, a good economy doesn’t leave it to towns dying of cancer in China and India (or the Philippines) to pick through its trash, nor leave industrial waste around to degrade the environment. A good technology cannot be environmentally degrading. Yet this is not something expressed by the ratio of equipment and material to labor power. In fact, Tahimik’s reasons can’t be corralled within political economy.

A better guide than Marx or Adorno to what Tahimik has in mind in relation to technology is a thinker who was influential in the ’70s when Perfumed Nightmare was made, and who has since been personally neglected, though his ideas continue to circulate without his name attached to them: Ivan Illich. It is unlikely that Tahimik worked in Paris in the OECD in the years he did (and turn his back on it) without having read Illich or heard of his ideas. What Tahimik means by a people-powered technology seems close to what Illich called a convivial technology, one that minimizes each of the following: biological degradation, radical—or technological—monopoly (as when cars crowd out bicycles and trains), over-programming, the polarization of sectors of a society, obsolescence, and the incidence of counter-productivity (as when the excessive use of antibiotics breeds super-strains of infections). Illich attracted Marxist hostility because the social criticism he developed, of medical institutions and education, of energy-use and speed, applied to both capitalist and future socialist regimes. It was anti-progressive: Isn’t what we need, after all, more of what we’ve got, distributed more equally?

Illich’s contention, disturbing to both socialists and capitalists, was that industrial technologies and industrial institutions, the tools and agencies of modernity so-called, could at a certain level of usage be inimical to social justice and the right to community. Car usage is an obvious example of this fact: Beyond a level of usage, cars are disastrous both to natural environments and the conviviality of neighborhoods. Equal distribution of cars will not solve this problem. Conviviality and convivial technology, as he defined them, can be invoked to defend subsistence economies and tribal rights, about which Marxism has always been ambivalent, and Illichian ideas recur today in such movements as the Slow Food and the Commons movements. I think, by the way, that Tahimik would agree that his celebration of the jeepney workshop as an example of creative recycling has to be qualified: We cannot have the internal combustion engine swarming over every neighborhood. I remember his LIBHTY (Limit Idiot Box Hours Thank You) campaign, calling for broadcast hours to be reduced (sometime in the late ’90s, if I remember correctly), in which he put forward an Illichian idea in non-cinematic form.

Illich and Tahimik are concerned with more than the distribution of goods and the ownership of the means of production. They agree that certain industrial technologies, or the means to produce them, are bad for communities either in themselves or at a certain level of usage. Tahimik himself is particularly concerned with the destruction by industrial economic development of community participation in the traditions and activity that keep a community alive. He is a great admirer of Igorot tribal life. The need for community, for participation, what Simone Weil described in L’Enracinement (The Need for Roots) as the need to be rooted in a society and culture, is a basic human need.

On this issue, Marxist theory has had little to say. Participation isn’t the same thing as class solidarity, based as that is on a trans-social category, the division of labor. Nor is participation just the opposite of Marxist alienation, the loss of control over the product of one’s work, though this must be taken into account. Nationalism, religion, the defense of one’s culture—these phenomena are politically ambiguous, but they have to be acknowledged as satisfying a human need. Community is essential to any Utopia in which human beings would be happy to live. If we are to use Utopia as a measuring rod, as Pavsek does, we cannot do so with merely a negative idea of it, as what the present lacks. (Pavsek, quoting Kluge, defines it as “something other than the insufficiency of the present.”) Nazis, after all, have their utopia—for the “Aryan” elite. But I don’t think Marxism is adequate to imagining the Good Society, and the via negativa of Adorno leads not to the Celestial City but to the Slough of Despond.

Tahimik’s utopianism is Edenic; it wants to bring together the scattered remnants of Paradise and cultivate them. Pavsek misses this aspect of Tahimik’s radicalism. One small but significant example of the difference in attitude between the two, the exegete and the artist, is the former’s use of the word “culinary” as a pejorative aesthetic description, meaning something pleasurable but cognitively vacuous in a work of art. (Tahimik, a restaurateur, might find this use, borrowed from Adorno, a little disconcerting.) Good food now will still be good food in any Utopia worth living in. It is therefore the presence now of Utopia. Can I suggest that critical theorists stop using the word disparagingly? Still, I have no hesitation in recommending this thoughtful book, which brings together a very important trio of filmmakers and gives to a Philippine filmmaker the attention he deserves.


  1. Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp.94-95.

  2. E. R. San Juan, Jr.’s earlier essay on The Perfumed Nightmare and Turumba is a valuable example (despite being freighted with national-democratic assumptions) of this commentary after Jameson. In Geopolitics of the Visible, ed. Rolando B. Tolentino (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2000).

  3. The Utopia of Film, pp. 82-83.

  4. The Utopia of Film, p. 97.