What explains the arrested development of Pinoy film criticism? Joel David examines the way we talk about films and why certain critics don’t talk about them well enough
The difficulty in tracking the development of film criticism in the Philippines is that the practice tends to take after the volatile developments in the mass medium it seeks to cover. One could argue that it started out as an elevated form of advertising (or what cynical media professionals during martial law called “praise releases”), then sought its own institutional independence in the counterpart medium of print, then specialized further in the form of dedicated organizations, until it arrived at the current internet-facilitated Babelesque proliferation of individual and group voices. I would not claim to have done sufficient research in pursuit of this notion, and the urgency of figuring out the modern-day whys and wherefores of local film criticism would be formidable as it already is.
What compounds the activity is the reality, as many an aspiring film practitioner discovers to her distress a few weeks into formal studies, that film criticism is hardly the only language that requires one’s attention; it is actually a minor, relatively easy mode of practice in the field of film scholarship, itself a subcategory of the larger field of cultural and literary studies. Hence when students realize that one more language – that of film itself as medium of expression – awaits mastery, too many of them retreat into this technological fortress, stepping out only when necessary (and mostly only to like-minded confreres) and using the only means available to them, the increasingly inadequate vocabulary of filmcrit agitation and canon formation.
In American graduate school, I was able to witness firsthand how this separation between film scholarship and production resulted in specialists who suffered from serious lack in whatever realm they opted to work in: practitioners who started out thoroughly clueless about histories of and issues specific to the medium, and academics who were hostile to the possibility that their object of study could have real-world (especially monetary) significance. So when my colleagues in the national university were planning at one point to accommodate the film students’ understandable (but misplaced) resistance to literary and foreign-language studies, I felt I had no choice except to side with colleagues outside the program who derided their proposal to transform a full-blown degree into a glamorized certificate course.
I would caution readers in other professions, not to mention other media, against bearing down on the admittedly pretentious and occasionally infantile excesses of contemporary Pinoy film artistes. The world that opens up to people who participate in film activity has been shifting for some time, in ways that differ considerably from critics who operate in other areas. Where the always-perceptive literary critic Caroline S. Hau could write, in this same publication, that “Rarely do Philippine books find a larger audience beyond the home country’s book market and a few area studies departments in American and other universities,” most Filipino film scholars have to contend with a disadvantage in the opposite direction: the preemption and sometimes negation of homegrown responses by foreign commentators, who maneuver from within systems that adequately fund research and handsomely reward the publication of journal articles.
To be sure, this globalized state of affairs may have once been an indispensable survival strategy for local practitioners. Asian and (for innovative B-film releases) US markets had initially already been accessible venues for Filipino producers, with or without foreign co-financiers; with the crisis situation induced by the implementation of martial-law policies, however, a more rarefied outlet – European film-festival exhibition and distribution – began to be reconfigured on both ends (i.e., by Euro organizers and US-dominated Third-World filmmakers) as the perfect safe haven: First World (and therefore profitable) but non- or even anti-American, with artistic cachet as fallback justification for “subversive” expressions.
Hence the Pinoy film buff’s world at the time (circa the so-called Second Golden Age roughly concurrent with the martial-law period), for all intents and purposes, comprised Manila as a site of struggle, Hollywood and its Asian satellites as sources of “safe” (i.e., politically uncommitted) profit, and the major film capitals in Western Europe, primarily Cannes in France, as nirvana, the ultimate destination for the worthiest among us. Small matter then that an undisputed master, Ishmael Bernal, was unceremoniously shunted aside at this venue, or that the festival’s fave Pinoy, Lino Brocka, had already started to exhibit the mentality that has since become the knee-jerk prophet-rejected-by-the-natives response of today’s so-called indie crowd. More seriously, the present-day rush among wide-eyed cineastes to replicate the Brocka model overlooks the fact that, although he continued to be defensive about his global successes, he quietly undertook a careful repudiation of his missteps in terms of identity politics (specifically his racism, sexism, and homophobia) and was building up toward major projects that would have restated his reconsidered positions minus his previous disregard for the local audience’s generic preferences.
This imaginary geographic reconfiguration has become even more decentered and mutable at present, with Hollywood (via Sundance and the Oscars) finally being recuperated as just another playing ground, and the long-defunct Philippine-based outlet, the Manila International Film Festival, supplanted by the annual Korean festival in Busan. Pinoy filmmakers launch their auteurist vehicles, appropriately enough, via local “independent” festivals, supplementing their efforts with their individual or group weblogs and social-network websites. To say, therefore, that film criticism has arrived is true, in the sense that one may be able to find it anywhere (mainly in new media) wherever this community congregates, and largely just as untrue, if by criticism we refer to people who commit themselves to the practice without the ulterior motive of self-promotion and exploitation of press functions as a way of defending personal interests.
Much as I had pledged to acquaintances that I would refrain from my own knee-jerk tendency to bash organized colleagues, blame for Pinoy filmcrit’s arrested development will have to be laid squarely at the swanky doorstep of the original critics’ circle, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (MPP). Just as filmmakers had earlier resorted to foreign filmfest participation as a means of resisting fascist state repression, so did the first batch of MPP members find at least one noteworthy purpose in banding together: The awards they were able to institute acted as a long-overdue corrective to the corruption-ridden and mislabeled industry prizes doled out by the print media-controlled Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences or FAMAS, which was then further debilitated by its leaders’ flirtation with the dictatorship’s film-centered cultural ambitions.
In nearly forty years of award-giving and decadal coffee-table book publishing, the MPP has barely managed to elevate everyday critical discourse in the country. Its members’ standard awards-checklist evaluation of individual films (providing a rundown of a film’s categories as a way of judging its overall worth) is not only embarrassingly sophomoric and impressionistic, milking public interest in the group’s cash cow, the annual awards ceremony; it was also already old when it first appeared: T. D. Agcaoili could be excused for writing this way back in the 1950s, when New Criticism was still fairly literally new, and even Ishmael Bernal had stylistically superior samples during his brief career as pre-MPP critic. The group has apparently decided to self-devolve into a highly exclusive kaffeeklatsch confined largely to high-brow academic personalities who probably count themselves lucky (or not) that they can desist from the gossip writing churned out by their most prolific member.
Having once been part of this circle, I can understand the remaining members’ predicament even if I remain unsympathetic. Observing that most former members’ output as critics generally improved, in quantitative and qualitative terms, once they left the group, I set out to follow their example. (Warning: from this point the article will turn increasingly subjective; pretend if you can that the “I” that follows is the persona that I-as-author also wish to subject to critical inspection.) With a few other MPP renegades, I set out to form rival groups in hopes that the trend of the MPP taking on aspects of the FAMAS, which it had sought to replace in spirit, would turn out to be a tendency that could be bucked. Either I was wrong about this particular instance of historical determinism, or I could not function with individuals who depart too extensively from my predilections; at this point I can only work effectively outside any long-term institutional situation, with the exception of basic bread-and-butter arrangements.
As Hau stressed in her The Manila Review article, criticism proffers discourse beyond an elaboration of the writer’s personal responses. Within our current terms, the latter type of output is designated as film reviewing and serves the laudable function of informing the potential consumer of whether a current release is worth patronizing or not. The problem with this concept, as many a frustrated reviewer (or a faithful reader of reviews) discovers early enough, is that in the age of the blockbuster release, audiences seem to decide on their film preferences irrespective of reviewers’ opinions.
All this would be to the benefit of the social scientist, actually, since it makes the box-office performance of any major film release as close to a popularly determined phenomenon as can be readily found in any cultural context. (One measure of any film enthusiast’s naïveté is how earnestly she or he perceives the artistry of “indie” releases as a value to be defended against the supposed vulgarity of the blockbuster movie. A useful rule of thumb would be to point out the contradiction in the person’s concern for the masses’ uplift vis-à-vis her or his rejection of the very sample[s] that they had decided to embrace; those who insist on reading this logic as a defense of the capitalist order ought to be regarded as beyond any kind of cultural assistance for the meantime.)
Film criticism, then, marks the step away from film reviewing, at best preparing the reader for the more difficult stage of tackling film scholarship. In requiring the author to be conversant with theoretical issues in film and culture, even when she decides not to foreground these in the written text, it makes demands that impressionistic responses do not impose on both writer and reader. As in film scholarship, criticism does not seek to subject the text to consumerist standards of excellence; it assumes that the reader has seen the film, or intends to watch it eventually, for questions beyond (or including) the rewards of spectatorship.
The good-news corollary to this seeming limitation is that, since criticism is not quite (or not yet) scholarship, the critic has an entire arsenal, provided by reviewing in particular or journalism in general and literature as a whole, at her discretionary disposal. Most film critics, not just in the Philippines, fail to exploit this potential and wind up writing with the stiff impartiality of “good” proper scholars. From what I can recollect, the list of Filipino film critics who have bothered with stylistic flourishes, for example, is both dismayingly short and short-lived: Bernal; MPP founding member Nestor U. Torre in his early period; ex-MPP members Ricardo Lee, Alfred A. Yuson, and Tezza O. Parel; and Raul Regalado. Almost all of them have virtually abandoned the practice (Bernal passed away in 1996), and none have produced enough filmcrit articles for a book-length compilation. Tellingly, the surviving individuals (with the exception of Torre) have careers outside film journalism, areas of practice that require the study and application of creative technique, including the underappreciated element of humor.
Working at Play
The type of critical experimentation I had in mind, once I had unfettered myself from the MPP’s institutional expectations, was to engage in mostly still-foreign exercises, partly as a way of demeaning the value of annual awards by saturating the culture with canonistical declarations, and mainly to induce a state where resistance and deconstruction can be initiated. Here is where I realized how popular responses can take on a life of their own: Although a few of my minor assertions found their detractors, the “Second Golden Age” declaration I made not only took off but also generated what to me were unnecessary permutations. Also, in the last couple of years, any Pinoy film blog or Facebook group suffused with a sense of historical self-worth has been engaging in variations of all-time-best listings. Strange indeed to learn that I had been mothering all along the monster that I should be slaying.
Outside of these still-to-be-resolved dilemmas, I managed to get some favorable feedback for a number of film-focused commentaries I generated originally for a number of publications, particularly as resident critic for the now-defunct National Midweek. The procedure I observed was something that occurred naturally (so to speak) to me from the beginning, as a yet untrained film specialist: The research would consist not just of the film release to be commented on, viewed at least twice, but also of the industrial and social contexts of its emergence. I was only to realize later that most people do not start out in this manner—indeed, that it would be a matter of pride for a film commentator to announce that she or he required just a single screening followed by a single draft, without the need to inspect the filmmaker’s related texts as well as the shape of the intended audience’s responses.
The fact that I never hesitated to contact any available practitioner to inquire about her or his objectives rubbed up against the notion of intentional fallacy, where the critic upholds the author’s motives as the only correct interpretation of the text. Serendipitously, this applies adequately only when a text is indeed “authored” by a single individual. Feature films rarely exhibit this condition, since they are always collectively configured. Moreover (and way before my classroom encounter with Michel Foucault’s formulation of the “author-function”), the best Pinoy film practitioners know better than to resent well-intentioned negative observations and are always only too glad to divulge insights into the creative process. The twin rivals for local canonical supremacy, both dead before their time, provided a study in contrast: I used to remark half-jokingly how a few minutes’ conversation with the always-available Ishmael Bernal would be enough to raise anyone’s IQ by a few points; whereas one of Lino Brocka’s very few shortcomings was his constantly defensive stance toward the working press in general and critics in particular, deliberately making himself scarce (except to his closest associates, many of whom were foreigners) and creating what outsiders felt was a fairly unpleasant cordon sanitaire around himself.
The other major element in my preparation—one I found myself always pursuing even when I could not contact any of the participants in production—is the one (to my constant perplexity) guaranteed to occasionally elicit angry responses among fellow critics and scholars, even among non-Filipinos. This is where I seek out actual mass viewers at random, mention the film I plan to write about, and ask them about their honest responses and their reasons, without interjecting my personal reflections. Not a single one has made the admission that affirms the biases of local intellectuals, even in supposedly progressive circles: No one has said so far, “Oh sure, I want to watch [or not watch] this or that current release because I’ve got no taste or my knowledge is limited.”
I take pains to spell this out at every opportunity because this way of thinking lies behind a lot of well-intentioned remarks that are always in danger of attaining critical mass (pun incidental), at worst eventually coalescing into educational and cultural policy. The insight that this essentially anthropological approach provides into “strictly commercial” film projects, where the practitioners cannot even be bothered to engage in dialogue about their output, would be indispensable to articulating a special, sometimes heretofore hidden type of cultural logic. The fact that a now-pervasive means to evade this challenge—digital production and exhibition—was once unavailable to a generation of filmmakers means that our elders had learned to always, always keep a finger on the pulse of the mass audience, or else risk career stagnation or worse. They might have welcomed a system that rewarded them with “independence,” but the question must be asked: independence from what, or whom?The article’s present title is derived from an observation made by Leloy Claudio, who was instrumental in persuading me to write on the topic. This article was made possible through financial assistance provided by the Inha University Faculty Research Grant. For this reason, outsiders who attempt film scholarship without adequate preparation similarly negotiate the field at their peril; witness the clunky regurgitation of dated theory anchoring already widely available data in Raymond J. Haberski, Jr.’s ambitiously titled “It’s Only a Movie”: Films and Critics in American Culture (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001). A subsequent footnote will mention relevant canonizing projects. Caroline S. Hau, “Reviewing the Reviewers,” Manila Review (14 December 2012), posted here. For an in-depth study of a specific practitioner’s output, see Bliss Cua Lim, “‘American Pictures Made by Filipinos’: Eddie Romero’s Jungle-Horror Exploitation Films,” Spectator 22.1 (Spring 2002), pp. 23-45. For a more comprehensive presentation, we may have to await the completion of a dissertation in progress, described by its proponent Andrew Leavold in his “Bamboo Gods and Bionic Boys: A Brief History of Philippines’ B Films” (South East Asian Cinema Conference paper, 2008, posted here). The association of European film practice with “art cinema” is espoused early enough in standard film-studies curricula, in one of the introductory textbooks, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s long-running (since 1977) Film Art: An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012). The only Brocka interview article fully worthy of its subject is Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon’s “The Brocka Battles,” from Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times, ed. Mario A. Hernando (Manila: Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas, 1993), pp. 118-154. At one point the always-beleaguered director points out how the British Film Institute’s Sutherland Trophy prize for his Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim (Malaya & Stephan Films, 1985) proved that a Filipino critic’s complaint about the film was in error (p. 147). See T. D. Agcaoili, “Movies,” rpt. in Philippine Mass Media in Perspective, eds. Gloria D. Feliciano and Crispulo Icban, Jr. (Quezon City: Capitol, 1967), pp. 133-161. Samples of Ishmael Bernal’s film criticism have been compiled in the appendix of Bayani Santos, Jr.’s M.A. thesis titled “Ishmael Bernal: The Man and the Artist as Revealed in His Works” (Manuel L. Quezon University, 2010). As a fan of such personalities as the late Giovanni Calvo or the Village Voice’s (recently terminated) columnist and blogger Michael Musto, and an insistent re-reader of Petronius’s Satyricon and obsessive purchaser of the occasional celebrity biography, I ought to clarify here that I do not disparage gossip writing per se—only its failed instances. Several major American film critics have discussed the differences between reviewing and criticism extensively. The acerbic John Simon typically provided a bellicose distinction by stating that “Perhaps it is easiest to begin by defining the commonest kind of bad criticism, which is not criticism at all but reviewing”; from “A Critical Credo,” Private Screenings (New York: Macmillan, 1967), excerpted online. Phillip Lopate, proceeding from Stanley Cavell’s metacritique, concludes that “the best film criticism verges on the personal essay, where the particular topic matters less, in the long run, than the companionable voice” (“Film Criticism Comes of Age,” Columbia College Today [November-December 2006], n.p., posted online; excerpted from the editor’s introduction to American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents until Now [New York: Library of America, 2006]). I would counter though that if we regard filmcrit as typically suffering from too much bookishness, then this prescription merely serves to reposition and confine the activity at the opposite end. A study of the proliferation of awards in the Philippines (mainly in the area of cinema) would be capable of sustaining a singular article of its own, with or without other forms of canonization. For a useful perspective on global trends that, for the most part, may have affected local developments, James F. English’s The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Value (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005) provides an effective summation. The article that started this scandalous flurry of activities had a playful title that I have since forgotten; the publisher insisted instead on the far more dignified-sounding “A Second Golden Age: An Informal History” (The National Pastime: Contemporary Philippine Cinema [Pasig City: Anvil, 1990], 1-17). I attempted a repudiation of the Golden-Ages concept in a lamentably inaccessible volume – “The Golden Ages of Philippine Cinema: A Critical Reassessment,” Cinema Filipinas: Historia, teoría y crítica fílmica (1999-2009), ed. Juan Guardiola, ([Andalucía]: Juna de Andalucía, Consejería de Cultura Fundación El Legado Andalusí, ), pp. 217-224. The canonical exercises I mentioned constituted an entire section, pp. 119-142, in my next volume, Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1995). Among the noteworthier canonizing projects since then are Top-100 lists by two Facebook groups, Cinephiles! (spearheaded by Adrian Dollente Mendizabal, covering global cinema including the Philippines) and Pinoy Film Buffs (led by Archie del Mundo, ongoing as of this writing), and a Top-50 listing initiated by Skilty Labastilla at the Pinoy Rebyu blog. Pauline Kael is famous for her claim that she watched a movie only once, then wrote out her review the same night, in longhand— pp. 18-19 in George Malko, “Pauline Kael Wants People to Go to the Movies: A Profile,” Conversations with Pauline Kael, ed. Will Brantley (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996), pp. 15-30. Rarely noticed are the qualifications to this remark: that she would scribble furiously in the dark during the screening, often taking all night to finish a review, and that she would moreover pick a film to write about only after having seen a number of contemporaneous releases. To me, this explains both the gut-feel immediacy of her writing, as well as the breezy, witty, yet complex manner in which she conveyed her ideas: As a connoisseur of jazz, she appreciated the need both to keep performing at one’s best level, revising as often as necessary, and to spare the audience the details of the process by which the final product was created. The ability to form a take on a film in one viewing is something I have yet to acquire, even if I still find myself following all her other methods (except for writing by hand); then again, Kael was herself one of a kind in critical literature. Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 113-138.