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In response to: The Manila Review article “Pinoy Film Criticism: A Lover’s Polemic” by Joel David
A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class
Film scholar Joel David presented key issues hounding the arrested development of Pinoy film criticism in this 2015 article entitled “Pinoy Film Criticism: A Lover’s Polemic,” published by The Manila Review.
Early on in the reading, he addressed the separation between film scholarship and production – raising the issue where “specialists 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.” He further added, “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.” I remember a graduate studies conversation I had with a friend, as we wondered about the seeming mystery concerning a number of graduate students majoring in film, as they find it challenging to graduate. The main issue discussed was the difference between film scholarship and film practice, since the only degree currently offered in the Philippines would require graduate students’ skills and interest in both domains when most of them focus on only one of the two. This concern further pushes the provision for another degree so the initial one can focus on film scholarship, then the other can focus on film practice. I would say it is an issue but it is not a mistake – it is just a part of a stage of development in the relatively young art form called film. The natural tendency is to improve from the learnings and experiences of the past and the present.
I would say that where we are now, as we celebrate the 100 years of Philippine cinema, is neither right nor wrong. Where we are now is a product of the choices done by generations before us until the youngest generation of film professionals of today and how film has been affected by the different forces in the society to date. Some of these choices may have brought us backwards somewhere down the line, but in the long run, I intend to remain optimistic and believe in the saying “We learn from our mistakes.” Perhaps, it is just a question of whether or not committing the past mistakes again and when will we really take the necessary steps to correct those mistakes. I believe we are developing at a slower pace compared to other film industries (some much younger than ours), but it is good to look forward to the fact that we are still growing and it is just a matter of finding the most fitting catalysts for further growth and development.
Going back to David’s article, he provided a good perspective on the development of film criticism in a nutshell. He said that it started out as a form of advertising in what cynical media professionals called “praise releases.” At some point, it sought institutional independence in the counterpart medium of print. It branched out and specialized via dedicated organizations until the technology of the digital age led to the proliferation of not just established organizations but also more personal and professional endeavors from a variety of individual and group voices with the world wide web as their main platform. Here, he expressed his reasons on leaving key film groups, primarily those involved in major film awards (which he said was unable to elevate everyday critical discourse in the country even after many decades), alongside his well-accepted declaration of the industry arriving its “Second Golden Age” that eventually led to many online variations of all-time-best listings, considerably attempting to work in a similar manner as the traditional award-giving bodies. With these, he found it strange to learn that he “had been mothering all along the monster that he should be slaying.”
He moved on discussing the environment of the Pinoy film in the so-called Second Golden Age roughly concurrent with the martial-law period with “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.” From the politics in film-centered cultural ambitions to the passion for filmmaking and film criticism to the capitalist requirements to sustain the film industry, he continued treading on the overall state of film criticism in the academia, its uncanny relationships with formal film studies and film practice, film scholarship’s domestic and international market issues, survival strategies of local practitioners, evolving marketing and distribution platforms of filmmakers, and the blurry dynamics among film studios, film professionals, film scholars, film critics, film reviewers, cinephiles, and the mass audience. All these come into play in the forward and backward directions that film criticism has traversed for all these decades.
David raised the much-debated issue concerning the terms film criticism and film reviewing. In my many years of teaching film theory and criticism in undergraduate film majors, one of the projects I would assign to my students involves personal conversations with a film critic/reviewer. Through the years, I have received a lot of varied pitches on who to interview from my students, especially with the many newcomers using the blogging platform. Even with the actual interviews my students conducted, more often than not, many film critics and film reviewers themselves found it a conundrum on how to differentiate the two. In the reading, David expressed how literary critic Caroline Hau stressed in her The Manila Review article “Reviewing the Reviewers” that “criticism proffers discourse beyond an elaboration of the writer’s personal responses.” Moreover, film reviewing “serves the laudable function of informing the potential consumer of whether a current release is worth patronizing or not.” David explained, “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.”
From what I understood in the reading, this suggests that film criticism is somewhere between film reviewing and film scholarship. As David said, criticism “is not quite (or not yet) scholarship.” He adds, “the critic has an entire arsenal, provided by reviewing in particular or journalism in general and literature as a whole, at her discretionary disposal.” He raises how most local and foreign film critics “fail to exploit this potential and wind up writing with the stiff impartiality of ‘good’ proper scholars.” He further noted that “the list of Filipino film critics who have bothered with stylistic flourishes, is both dismayingly short and short-lived.” He mentioned a handful of names, and many of them, although most are still living as of this writing, have virtually abandoned the practice and “none have produced enough filmcrit articles for a book-length compilation.” The said names included Ishmael Bernal, Nestor Torre, Ricardo Lee, Alfred Yuson, Tezza Parel, and Raul Regalado.
At this point, I found some clarity when it comes to the terms film reviewing, film criticism, and film scholarship. Yet, there are new terms needing further clarity for me: film journalism and film commentatorship.
David revealed his convictions on how a film commentator can easily write about a film on a single screening followed by a single draft without further studies on the filmmaker’s related texts and the film audience’s responses. I think, here is where lies the difference between film reviewing and film criticism (actually, even film scholarship) – because when reviewing a film, I believe a single screening followed by a one-day writing process articulating the writer’s viewing experience, cinematic cognizance, and impressionistic responses (with Pauline Kael’s type of writing being a good example) works for any credible writer in the field. Meanwhile, film criticism and film scholarship both require coming up with a written piece that needs further research; thus, the piece is impossible to be crafted in one sitting.
In mentioning how Bernal who was both a film critic and a film practitioner was easily accessible for discourse and open to criticism without knee-jerk reaction, while Lino Brocka who was a film practitioner and a film writer remained constantly defensive especially to the working press and critics (except to his closest mostly foreign associates), David also raised the still persisting issue that many “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.” Moreover, he brought up how “strictly commercial” film projects impose on being closed to engaging in dialogue about the practitioners’ output more than for press release’s sake. These concerns, I believe, stemmed from the Filipinos’ cultural values. Filipinos are inherently sensitive to criticism – the best term to use being “balat sibuyas.” Our value for seniority and respect reflects how generations of families find it taboo for children to reason out, and worse, disagree with their elders. I hope that, like how we now accept more modern takes on gender issues (but not to say there are no more issues), our reception on film criticism will eventually evolve for the better.
David, Joel. “Pinoy Film Criticism: A Lover’s Polemic,” The Manila Review, 2015, http://themanilareview.com/issues/view/pinoy-film-criticism-a-lovers-polemic.
Hau, Caroline S. “Reviewing the Reviewers,” The Manila Review, 2012. http://themanilareview.com/issues/view/reviewing-the-reviewers