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Notes on Philippine Cinema collected writings on cinema emmanuel anastacio reyes

Sister Stella L. (1984). Laurice Guillen, Vilma Santos and director Mike de Leon. Photo by Cesar Hernando.

an online book project by the “batch ‘89” communication arts graduates of de la salle university


notes on

section essays

acknowledgements

I

wish to thank my editors, Nestor Cuartero and Jo Diaz Garcia of Tempo and Mario Hernando of Malaya, for allowing my writings to see print.

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introduction to the online edition

the original book preface

I also wish to thank my undergraduate teachers, Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. and Agustin Sotto, for giving me my first lessons in film. Finally, I would like to thank the following for providing the photographs used in this book: Butch Francisco, Mario Hernando, Cesar Hernando, LVN, TEMPO, Regal Films, Viva Films, Ateneo de Manila, Lamberto Avellana, Koko Trinidad, Tikoy Aquiluz, the National Library, and the Silayan family and Luna Sicat who did the picture research. To my student research assistants, Rosario Pangle, Stella Kalaw, Rowena Roces, Michael Cabanlit, Aldrin Anthony Galang and our photo lab technician, Norman Loteria, many thanks. This online edition of Notes on Philippine Cinema was made possible with the help of my former students, namely, Emily Tan Cal, Maria Carmina Jauregui, Carmina SyvillaTorres and Aldrin Anthony Galang who created a new MS Word file of the manuscript and Chris Uy for proofreading the online text. Batch ‘89, you’re the best!

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form in the filipino film

philippine cinema

Section Essays 2


notes on

This online book is dedicated to my parents, Ester and Epifanio T. Reyes and my brother, Butch.

philippine cinema

Section Essays 3

about the author

has an M.A. in Film Studies (1983) from Ohio University and a Communication Arts and Marketing Management degree (1981) from De La Salle University. He was the Chairman of the Communication Art Department of DLSU from 1984 to 1989. He wrote, produced and directed the documentary Vic Silayan: An Actor Remembers (1985) and the independent 16mm film, Dreaming Filipinos (1990) which won the Grand Prize at the ASEAN Young Cinema Competition in Tokyo, Japan in 1992. He has been into painting and drawing since 1997 and undertook the layout and design for this online book. emmanuel anastacio reyes


introduction to the online edition

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Introduction to the Online Edition 4

T

he essays in this online film anthology were originally written between 1984 and 1995 and were collected in two books, Notes on Philippine Cinema (1989) and Malikhaing Pelikula (1996). Many of these essays and reviews first appeared as articles for publications such as Pahayagang Malaya, Sunday Malaya Magazine, Tempo and Panorama among others. Other essays, like Form in the Filipino Film, were specifically written for the book anthology. When I was working as an independent filmmaker between 1984 and 1993, movies were still shot on film negatives. At that time, raw stock, as unexposed film negatives were referred to back then, was the single most expensive item on a production budget outside of salaries. As recently as a few years back when shooting locally on 35mm film was still possible, a 400-foot roll or approximately 5 minutes of film, would retail for about 8,000.00 - 12,000.00 pesos depending on its light sensitivity. This amount did not include the price of processing and printing. At this steep price, I felt that raw stock was the single biggest deterrent to making a quality Filipino movie. Standard international shooting practices like multiple camera setups and multiple takes were difficult to employ locally simply because the cost of doing so was prohibitive. As a result Filipino movies look crude when pitted against Hollywood movies. It’s not uncommon to watch

Prior to the advent of digital cinema, the cost of raw stock, as film negatives were referred to, was the single biggest deterrent to making a quality Filipino movie. Because it was very expensive, directors were restricted as to how many rolls of negatives they could use. This resulted in movies that were technically compromised. The limited amount of negatives from which movies were assembled resulted in movies that had recurring problems with logic. the single biggest deterrent

a mainstream Filipino movie and have one’s attention drawn to things that don’t work in the movie which is nearly everything. And the list is endless: from pacing that lacks urgency to acting that’s cliche to a plot that’s full of holes, the inadequacies are so conspicuous that one leaves the theater feeling shortchanged rather than entertained. The fact that mainstream Filipino movies can’t suspend our disbelief for any stretch of time is evidence that cinema is a truly difficult art form to master. Creating a seamless viewing experience for an audience is a costly undertaking. When I was shooting my independent film, Dreaming Filipinos, in 1990, we lost an entire day’s work because a roll of film returned from the processing lab with a scratch running throughout the entire roll. The scratch was on the negative and there was really no way to get around the problem except to spend money that wasn’t in the budget to reshoot the entire roll.


It was a bitter lesson yet I knew that if I didn’t spend money to correct this problem, that scratch would mar the quality of all the prints that would be struck from the negative. In cinema, flaws in any aspect such as camera focus, authenticity of location even the way dialogue is delivered all have a way of working against the credibility of the film since the parts that don’t work or appear wrong always draw attention away from the story. Whatever artistic intentions a film may have will be for nought if the audience repeatedly finds fault in the execution of the material.

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With the advent of digital technology, I felt that, finally, filmmakers now have a good, budget-friendly alternative to film. Although film remains superior in terms of color rendition and its ability to capture rapid motion, digital technology can deliver a reasonably cinema-like image at a fraction of the cost of film. In fact, since moving images are recorded as digital files, one can shoot as much material as needed since the cost of saving this material is negligible. Now that filmmakers were finally free to shoot as much material as they wanted, I honestly thought that Filipinos would be able to make movies that were technically up to par with foreign movies at least in the way they’re put together. With multiple camera setups, filmmakers can now break a scene more freely into long shots, medium shots and closeups thereby giving editors more leeway to make a scene more dynamic. Performances would be better since actors can now do multiple takes to try different ways of acting out a scene. Moreover, the problem of narrative logic, which is a direct result of not having shot enough material, could now be reduced to a minimum making the experience of watching a local movie less disagreeable. But surprisingly these changes didn’t happen. Despite the creative opportunities presented by this new technology, the same shortcomings that plagued our movies when they were shot on film remained evident in its digital form. The

new technology meets long-standing local movie problems

Despite being the costliest movie ever produced in the country, reportedly at 130 million pesos, a seamless narrative still eluded El Presidente (2012), director Mark Meily’s biopic of the country’s first president, Emilio Aguinaldo. This was due in part to its star, ER Ejercito, who had to hold down a job as governor of the province of Laguna while shooting the digital epic. Scheduling conflicts resulted in delays that reduced the shooting time of crucial scenes in the movie. The result was a 165 minute saga that still left the impression that not enough material had been shot to convey Aguinaldo’s story convincingly.

story, the acting remained bereft of surprise. Worst, since digital also serves as a platform in broadcasting, movies now resemble television dramas.


Even a film like El Presidente (2012), the most expensive Filipino movie to date made reportedly for 130 million pesos, couldn’t deliver the promised seamlessness that digital technology allowed.1 Impressive in parts, this epic retelling of Emilio Aguinaldo’s presidency eventually gets weighed down by an ambitious script whose requirements could not be adequately met by the actors, the camera and art department and even the financiers. In an exchange of correspondence with the film’s writer and director, Mark Meily, I asked him why the film had problems with coverage such that many scenes began without establishing shots. As a viewer I found it difficult to get a lock on the story because of the film’s insistence of simply cutting from a shot of one old house interior to a different but similar-looking house interior to suggest transition without specifying the distance or precise location of either house. Moreover the film’s protracted narrative appears to bank on the audience having more than just a sketchy knowledge of this historical period. Historical characters are introduced and key chapters in Aguinaldo’s presidency are reenacted with nary an explanation as to why they are relevant to the plot. I also asked him why some battle scenes were so brief considering that the setup was expensive and called for many extras to be in full period uniform. He admitted that in theory, with digital technology, there should no longer be a problem with coverage as one can shoot as much footage as necessary. However, with the case of El Presidente, the actor portraying Aguinaldo, ER Ejercito, also had to hold down a day job as governor of the province of Laguna while shooting the film. There were days where his work as governor kept him away from the set resulting in shooting delays that effectively reduced the time needed to film difficult scenes in the movie. As a result, not enough shots could be taken to help convey crucial scenes more convincingly.

Here we see that although filmmakers like to view cinema as art, for many people in the industry, making movies is primarily a job. Most feel blasé about it and are unlikely to push themselves creatively since it doesn’t guarantee a bigger paycheck. Moreover, the real jaded movie people know from experience that Filipinos are wary of movies that stray from commercial formula, a fact upheld by the box-office numbers of the Metro Manila Film Festival each year. Films that regurgitate the previous year’s offerings always do much better than movies that aim for something different.

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So why is art seen as incompatible with popular taste? Aside from being too nebulous to be commodified, Filipinos continue to hold onto a rather dated view of art where it’s seen as a superfluous activity that has little or vague incomegenerating prospects. For some, it just takes the fun away from watching a movie. If it was to be tolerated at all, art had to be easy to comprehend. The moment it ceased to be easy, it turns to work. Consequently it ceases to be interesting. Work, understandably, has a lot of negative connotations mainly because the majority of people have jobs that they detest. So when movies present themselves as entertainment, audiences don’t expect to work at understanding it. So any plot that is outside the experience of the Filipino moviegoer, such as one that requires viewers to be well-read, would be rejected for being elitist and exclusionary. To be comfortable in a movie, Filipinos, ironically have to endure plot-lines that are stale and demeaning to their intelligence because the alternative of opening up to something unfamiliar is uncomfortable, even scary. Much has been written about what ails the movie Philippine movie industry and nearly all the problems have been identified in different forums, this book included. From escalating production cost to taxes, piracy and falling

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Marasigan, Ruben. “ER Ejercito on El Presidente’s P130M budget: Ito na yata ang pinakamalaki at pinakamagastos na pelikulang Pilipino.” Philippine Entertainment Portal. November 19, 2012. (Accessed April 16, 2013.)


audience numbers, all these factors seem to conspire to keep Filipino movies in a perpetual infantile state.

notes on philippine cinema

But one problem that’s constantly overlooked is a philosophical problem, one that’s is recognized by many but nearly all choose not to address the issue. This problem concerns the fear of becoming a more evolved individual. This fear consumes both the audience and the people who make movies.

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To become a more evolved individual, one must summon the courage to challenge ideas, beliefs and practices that undermine one’s intelligence or integrity. To evolve means to move away from old assumptions and ideas and embrace new ones as a way of to adapting to changes in society. Yet this is precisely what local movie producers have decided to bet against. Not only do they dislike change, the industry continues to rely on old movie formulas even though this is directly responsible for the decline in market share of local movies versus Hollywood movies. More than a decade ago, local producers could be counted on for a new drama, comedy or action film opening each week. But now local box office successes are few and far between. Filipino movies can only lord over the box office for two weeks during Christmas and only because Hollywood movies are barred from being screened during this period. Producers clearly do not know what to make of young people today for whom watching a local movie is no longer that compelling. With young people constantly exposed to new technology, Filipino movies and their petty concerns just seem irrelevant given that there is so much free stuff on the internet that’s more worthwhile to look at. A few decades back when Filipino movies ruled at the box office, producers scoffed at calls to make movies that

Before television was introduced in the 1950s, singers and actors entertained people live on stage in vaudeville shows. Television borrowed this format and created the variety show that we know today. With its nationwide reach, television proved more cost-effective in bringing entertainment to the public and this led to the demise of vaudeville in the 1960s. This Clover Theater print ad from the 1950s should serve as a reminder that going to the movies, like vaudeville, can be rendered obsolete by technology. upstaged by television

broke away from formula. Why the change the recipe, they argued, when audiences lapped up the slop that they were serving? But since going to the movies is no longer cheap, people have turned to watching television where such cheesy entertainment is free. So what do movie producers now have to offer that could lure Filipinos back to the movie theaters week after week? Nothing!


After years of ignoring product development and discouraging mavericks from working behind the camera, Filipino movies seriously face the prospect of ending up like vaudeville in the 1960s. Once a staple of pre-war entertainment, live variety stage shows eventually proved to be too expensive to produce because its audience was limited by the size of the theater being used. Television proved to be more cost-effective in producing variety shows because it could reach a wider audience. As it became increasingly marginalized, vaudeville shows were reduced to striptease shows before disappearing altogether in the 1970s. With more young Filipinos becoming less attached to watching movies, time will come when dwindling ticket sales would rule against making local films. Since producers don’t have a Plan B as to how to reinvigorate the local movie industry, perhaps it’s time movie people reconsidered their belligerent attitude towards intelligent content. Film is a creative medium; it is meant to evolve and shed its old form. It’s foolish to insist that its operating principles remain unchanged since with the advent of video games, HD TV, smartphones and broadband, movies no longer have the monopoly of the consumer’s discretionary funds. At the heart of the industry’s chronic resistance to change is the issue of control both in terms of production and exhibition. Movies that eschew formula are denied exhibition because it takes away earning opportunity during a fixed exhibition period; it’s a loss that can easily be prevented by showing more of what viewers are accustomed to watching. But as the last few years have proven, the threat to the industry didn’t come from new filmmakers with hard-to-market ideas. It came from an entirely different business. Technology brought into the entertainment arena the very ideas that local movies and television dreaded most

- intelligent content. Rather than be intimidated by it, young people embraced it and in a few short years, movies have lost ground to an array of gadgets that can play music, movies and games. Since movies could now be freely exchanged on the internet as a digital file, more and more people seem less keen to pay to see movies in theaters. What do these developments teach us? Change is constant and necessary. Old ideas (and the folks who cling to them) need to give way to new ideas because innovation is a direct response to changes in society. From industrialist Henry Ford who remarked around 1909 that customers wouldn’t want any car color other than black to Ferdinand Marcos who in 1972 said that Martial Law was necessary to save the country, pompous declarations that seem valid for a time are eventually discarded when people evolve. Change is frightening particularly if livelihoods are at stake. It is not surprising that many feel conflicted about it. But creative energy is indifferent to our comfort level and need for financial security for otherwise it wouldn’t be creative. So change is something we need to adapt to. If we resist change, our surrounding environment will eventually change causing us to feel left behind. So instead of being close-minded, we just need to trust the process because change tries to make us aware of our potential that would otherwise remain dormant is we chose to remain in a dead-end job or situation. In the study of human development, the process of making the most of our potential is referred to as self-actualization. As children we are aware of the things that interest us. As we devote more time to pursue our interest, we become aware that we have a talent for it. When we are encouraged by other people, like our parents, it becomes a vocation. But when we are discouraged or ridiculed, this passion is not something we outgrow. We simply repress it. Once

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we repress our potential, this positive energy ends up being manifested in a host of negative ways. We can become lazy or ill. We can develop addictions or worse, we can turn to crime.

notes on philippine cinema

Introduction to the Online Edition

This slide towards anti-social or unproductive behavior is ironic because society, as a lip service, encourages us to realize our full potential as individuals. But modern capitalist society as a whole is only interested in people who create wealth and aspire for power. Individuals who don’t actively pursue these goals are generally marginalized. Individuation, as Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung (1875 1961), calls this process of self-actualization, is oblivious to parental expectations or job market trends. Moreover, the process of individuation leads to one-off individuals such that although their talent may be recognized in other people, their approach to giving form to their passion is distinct and may require prolonged nurturing. It’s not surprising therefore that many individuals with a strong sense of purpose often get into conflict with their parents, their schools, their employers, the church and sometimes even the state. A strong sense of individuality is destabilizing to a community that counts on its members to conform to tradition. That is why profit-focused groups like movie producers, institutions like the church and society as a whole come down hard on non-conformists, critical thinkers and rebels. Dissent makes group control more difficult. To underscore the precariousness of thinking differently, even just thinking for yourself, parents and institutions resort to instilling fear and guilt. It’s not uncommon for parents, for instance, to withhold love and sometimes even inheritance, if their children make life decisions that doesn’t meet their approval. For people who are raised in a religious environment, to put one’s

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taking one’s cue from nature

Psychiatrist Carl Jung likened the process of individuation to that of a tree growing in the wild. Its roots will grow where it can penetrate ground and its branches will extend wherever it can harness sunshine. In the course of a human life, he suggested that people move in the direction that allows them to grow. He encouraged people to surrender to the force seeking creative expression in one’s life and eschew conformity and the demand to please other people. Moreover he encouraged people to follow their calling even if it meant abandoning career paths and comfort zones.2

needs ahead of others is viewed as selfish. In authoritarian societies, terror is employed as a way to get people to obey the law. The road to self-actualization is fraught with risks since from the time we are born, our power of choice is demonized unless it is congruent with the tribal goal of creating wealth. Individuals who lack resolve or those who have a low opinion of their talent are the first to succumb to this unrelenting pressure. In exchange for not asserting their right to self-determination, the tribe, such as a family, a gang or a religion, extends protection and helps one cope with issues of survival. This is particularly attractive to those who fear being alone, hungry and unwanted. Many happily don a uniform to indicate their sense of belonging to a tribe. Membership also gives them a sense of power because belonging to a following gives them a feeling of being right.

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von Franz, M. -L. “The Process of Individuation.” Man and His Symbols. Ed. by Carl Jung. London: Picador, 1978. p. 164-167.


As the tribe is focused on survival, its decisions are largely guided by fear. Once it latches on to a belief, no matter how unsound it may be, it becomes an unwritten law that’s nearly impossible to overturn, more so if livelihoods are at stake.

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This is particularly true in the entertainment business where one of the most odious beliefs is that you shouldn’t write any material that is way too intelligent for the Filipino moviegoer. This has made both Filipino moviegoers as well as producers contemptuous of Western teachings on aesthetics and creativity. Fundamental concepts like form and symmetry are routinely disregarded because they are perceived as unimportant. In an effort to mock the exacting standards of English-based media, local movies as well as television deliberately undermine the concept of artistry such that acting is reduced to travesty, language is corrupted and worn-out ideas are denied retirement all out of a juvenile desire to make fun of perceived bourgeois values. But imagine how impoverished the Philippines would be if Dr. Jose Rizal opted not to write Noli Me Tangere because he felt that his countrymen weren’t worth the effort? Filipinos, over a century ago, were short, dark and illiterate; it was hardly the crowd that would fuss over a Spanish language novel about social injustice. But Rizal wrote it anyway and published the novel at great risk to his personal safety. Most Filipinos remember Rizal for the way he died. But Rizal’s relevance lay in his work ethic. His fortitude in undertaking a complex novel and his decision to address his readers intelligently is a stark contrast to the saliva-driven media culture today that espouses the skewed view that talking down to Filipinos is the only way to be understood. To create a work with serious merit, Rizal offers us an

rizal’s relevance lay in his work ethic

How impoverished would the country be if Rizal didn’t undertake the writing of Noli Me Tangere? Having written the great Filipino novel, it appears that Filipinos consider that task over and couldn’t be bothered to write the next great novel that would stir public consciousness like Noli. Efforts to turn Noli Me Tangere into a movie have been spotty at best including Gerry de Leon’s 1961 production. To popularize the material, the actor playing Crisostomo Ibarra (Eduardo del Mar) was made to look like Jose Rizal, a move that erroneously assumes that the two identities are interchangeable.

example by getting over the need to think only in terms of compensation or popular appeal. The reason why the book remains relevant is that it pushes readers to step up to the level of thinking of the author. The novel criticizes religion, a prospect many Filipinos find intimidating even today. It’s rich, multi-layered discourse on social ills during the twilight years of Spanish rule has stumped every filmmaker who has attempted to turn it into a movie including National Artist Gerry de Leon. Their adaptations proved to be more reverential than cinematic and in the case of de Leon’s production, it didn’t help that


they felt they had to popularize the material by casting an actor who looked like Jose Rizal to play the lead character, Crisostomo Ibarra.

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Although Noli Me Tangere is a superb work, it’s feat can easily be surpassed given the freedom and level of education, even creature comforts, that writers enjoy today. But no homegrown novel has moved Filipinos since Noli Mi Tangere. The great Filipino novel about World War Two or even Martial Law has yet to be written. It’s probably being written in the mind of someone who has yet to commit it on paper. Perhaps fear, among other concerns, is holding up its creation. Self-actualization calls for one to find relevance in one’s ideas that may have little or no value to other people. It’s a daunting challenge rife with uncertainty and offers no guarantee of success. American mythologist, Joseph Campbell (1904 - 1987), refers to this challenge as the archetypal hero’s journey. It’s a story that he discovered was common among different cultures. From Buddha to Star Wars, the story of an individual called to undertake a near-impossible task has an irresistable appeal to people of all persuasions. Although many assume that the hero’s journey is nothing more than a tale, it’s really a representation of how our lives should unfold. The call to heroism and selflessness is an energetic response meant to act as a counterbalance to society’s historical disposition towards mind control as a means to establish authority. Whether it involves running a school, a corporation, a country or a family, people in a position of power always seek ways to control the way people think as a way of creating order. They establish norms by which all actions are judged good or bad. It’s this fascist, selfrighteous posturing that contributes to the neurosis that people experience when they disagree with tribal rules. The fault is always assigned to the party that disagrees making

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“the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” 3 This quote from mythologist Joseph Campbell from his book, Reflections on the Art of Living, sounds simple enough yet many people chose to sacrifice their bliss and live an inauthentic life in order to make other people happy. Finding the courage to embrace our authentic selves at the risk of provoking other people is the lesson behind the universal story of the hero’s journey.

dissent an unpleasant task. Since unrestrained attempts at mind control is harmful, following the philosophy of yin and yang where contrary forces are actually interdependent, heroes evolve to spur people to challenge their fears and apathy and encourage them to think critically. Contrary to perception, to be a hero need not be a grand undertaking. Simply doing what’s right can make a world of difference compared to doing nothing at all. Being an integrated individual, whereby one embraces all aspects of one’s self, particularly sexual preference, can be of immense help to those who are terrified to reveal such disliked traits in public.

Osbon, Diane K., ed. Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991. p.15. 3


We don’t exist simply to take our cue from other people. We are individuals and oftentimes what we want and what we feel are incompatible with what others want for us. What we want, what Campbell refers to as “our bliss,” was an idea that was important enough to merit inclusion in the U.S. Declaration of Independence which describes it as the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”4 So it is ironic that what will make us truly happy is something that often makes other people, particularly our parents, unhappy and disappointed. And since we ourselves tend to doubt the potential of our own talent, instead of nurturing it, we cop out and choose a life of compromise. We pursue careers that offer more security than satisfaction and disassociate the idea of happiness from occupation. For a time things may go well and we get lulled into thinking that all this talk about life having a purpose is untrue. Then something unexpected happens that messes up our lives. We fail at something important. We get betrayed by people we trust. And the next thing we realize is that we just can’t go on living with the same assumptions about life and people because these assumptions don’t work anymore. In coming up with new assumptions as to what to believe and whom to trust, we instinctively try to think of something more valid than our previously held beliefs. We can start demanding change or truth from others. These demands, although meant well, can be insulting or scary to people who can’t relate to the crisis that we are going through. As a result, many people we’ve come to depend on can end their relationship with us just when we are feeling most vulnerable. Cast aside, finding ourselves alone and unwanted, this confluence of setbacks signals the beginning of the hero’s journey, an unsettling time marked by intense doubt, despair and a feeling that we’ve lost our way. As the tribe becomes an adversary, we are forced to rely on our own wisdom to make sense of this new equation.

The journey towards self-actualization is really a journey towards becoming a more authentic human being. As we try to make choices that are more congruent with our life’s purpose, everything false or that which doesn’t contribute to our growth as an authentic individual will fall away. It’s not uncommon at this stage to have a falling out with friends, colleagues and even family members. Even our health can undergo a radical change. Illness can develop as a result of years of having our power of choice violated by other people. Being in a chronic stage of hatred towards others can likewise make us very ill.

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As events conspire to test our resolve, we may be inclined to view our decision to be true to our calling as a disaster. But things go bad as a way of showing us the downside of compromising our integrity or accommodating falsehoods in an effort to be liked by other people. Once we become aware of our mistakes, we can now make choices that are more congruent with our purpose. As sensible as this step may sound, most find the task of moving on from a tribulation daunting, if not impossible. Some get stuck in a cycle of hatred, regret and self-pity. For many, however, the loss of financial security that follows after one gets kicked out by an employer or one’s own family is unthinkable. People can’t be faulted if they chose to return to the tribal fold even if it makes them unhappy, even if they are exploited or asked to dumb-down their work even though they are capable of doing something much better. For most, unemployment or being poor is simply not an alternative. Ironically, the more we reject the call for a more authentic life, the more we are drawn to hero-centered narratives which we, on a subconscious level, hope would compensate for our lack of courage to become the hero in our own lives. This explains the enduring appeal of the story of Jesus Christ and even Jose Rizal in our culture. We organize religions

The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription. July 4, 1776. http://www. archives.gov/ exhibits/charters/ declaration_ transcript.htm (Accessed April 29, 2013). 4


Poster for The Dark Knight (2008). Directed by Christopher Nolan.

accomplishments, our ordinary lives seem almost inconsequential. Religions feed on this sense of despair and encourages fanaticism as a way of manipulating people into believing that this is the only way to experience a sense of worth and purpose. By devoting their lives to following the teachings of other people, many believe this frees them from the challenge of acting on their life’s purpose. But a life-purpose cannot be a group undertaking because it is person-specific. It’s a one-off calling which explains why there has never been another Jesus Christ or Jose Rizal. They’ve had countless worshippers which proves that it’s easier to follow in someone’s footsteps than to be a trailblazer. According to Joseph Campbell, no path exists at the start of the hero’s journey. But as we walk towards the direction that we fear most, our courage would provide the illumination to help us find where our true happiness lies. Because the hero moves into unchartered territory with what he is trying to champion, his intentions will likely be misunderstood. Both Jesus Christ and Jose Rizal ended up as martyrs for their cause but their teachings lived on to win the day. From a pragmatic standpoint, being a hero for one’s cause seem foolish, even dangerous. But despite our insistence that being a hero is a job for others, we are repeatedly drawn to their dangerous exploits both in literature and film.

The power of movies lie in its ability to tap into the unfulfilled needs of moviegoers. The quest for love, romance, sex, and, in the case of The Dark Knight, a sense of heroism, can be tough to satisfy in real life. Movies allow us to enjoy these elusive experiences vicariously. Going by the plot of the biggest movies in the last two decades, it appears that the need to be a hero is high on the secret wish list of moviegoers. Since heroism in real life remains an intimidating prospect for many, it’s safe to assume that superhero movies would remain relevant and in demand for sometime to come. the power of movies

in their names and slavishly recall their accomplishments as though these dead people are the only ones whose lives matter on this planet. Compared to their unparalleled

In fact the biggest movies in the last two decades centered on heroes whose good intentions are widely misunderstood by others. Films like Titanic (1997), The Matrix (1999), Avatar (2009), the Spider-Man (2002. 2004, 2007) and The Dark Knight (2005, 2008, 2012) trilogies owe much of their appeal to characters with Christ-like attributes as they try to serve humanity while being hated at the same time. What makes their stories so compelling is the fact that they are confronted by problems that seem insurmountable.

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Despite the odds, they are able to bring down their opponents because, rather than give in to apathy and self-doubt, they challenge their rival’s assumption of being unbeatable. In like fashion, providing redress to the problems of the local movie industry would be inadequate unless people challenge entrenched beliefs that predisposes the medium to mediocrity. These beliefs are many and they center on the assumption that the Filipino audience doesn’t deserve better. That in fact they deserve to be scammed. Challenging this tribal ethic seem foolhardy particularly for those who feel they have nothing remarkable to contribute, either as a movie worker or a moviegoer, that would make a difference in the greater scheme of things. But every progressive gesture is heroic no matter how modest because it’s standing up for something that’s right. One can bring about remarkable change over time by simply deciding one will no longer support any effort that will undermine the intelligence or integrity of the Filipino. It’s an idea Rizal was trying to teach us over a century ago.

April 2013 Makati

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the original book preface

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The Original Book Preface 15

T

he aim of this book is to examine Philippine cinema for what it is rather than what it has failed to become. It is tempting to be derogatory when one speaks about Filipino or Tagalog movies. But there is nothing to gain by being aloof about the subject matter. On the contrary, our movies say a lot about what we are as a people. This book is composed of essays, reviews and an interview. This book talks about the classics of Philippine cinema. Moreover, it attempts to crack the terrain of mainstream Filipino films. Here I shall elucidate on the peculiarities of mainstream movies, the kind of movies that tend to infuriate film critics. Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag was the first Filipino film to have a profound influence on me when I was a student. Released in 1975, this film ushered in a period in Philippine cinema that saw the marriage of daring ideas, innovative filmmakers and brave producers which resulted in the production of several outstanding works. 1976 alone saw the release of three classics: Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?, Mike de Leon’s Itim and Lino Brocka’s Insiang. 1976 also saw the formation of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino. This Filipino film critics group saw to it that proper recognition be given to artists producing these laudable works.

Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975). Directed by Lino Brocka I was a 15-year-old high school student when I saw Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag during its original theatrical release 1975. What impressed me most about the film was its high degree of verisimilitude or semblance of truth. This is a more precise term for describing the degree of realism in a film. Maynila was shot at a time when Filipinos movies were mainly star vehicles. Many films were shot without scripts and stories were largely improvised on the set. The “story” was usually nothing more than a rudimentary background for the songs, dance numbers or comedy skits that were regarded as the real draw of a movie. But Maynila was a game changer by having a well-structured story upfront. Director Lino Brocka did away with big name stars and cast a relatively unknown Bembol Roco for the lead role. And in a departure from local movies, the normally underutilized aspects of camera work, lighting, music and editing were put to more imaginative use as storytelling devices. a game changer

The succeeding years saw the release of other landmark films: Ishmael Bernal’s Manila By Night (1980), Mike de Leon’s Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (1980), Kisapmata (1981) and Batch `81 (1982) and Lino Brocka’s Jaguar (1979), and Bona (1980). Learning about cinema at this time gave an invigorating feeling knowing that despite the ludicrous state of Philippine movies, it was still possible to come up with sensible films, no matter how few in a year. Films must make sense. This was the tenet of film education at the time I was taking up my first courses on the subject at De La Salle University in the late 70s. With


this orientation, I developed a hostile attitude towards Filipino films that failed to measure up to the standards dictated by film appreciation books. An opportunity to take up advance courses in film in the United States radically changed my perception about cinema. When I began writing reviews in 1984, my interest in film criticism had shifted from aesthetic and technical witch-hunting to film ideology. In writing reviews, my interest centered more on what a film was trying to say and how successful it was rather than how good or bad certain elements in the movie turned out to be. A number of these reviews appear in the second section of this book. It is difficult not to feel hostile towards flawed and trite Tagalog movies which probably account for 99% of the films produced each year. My frustration coupled with my keen interest in good cinema prompted me to seek out film artists who wanted to share their views on the industry. I wanted to know specifically why things refuse to change for the better despite the existence of good local film examples. This quest led me to a meeting with actor Vic Silayan and our discussions culminated in the making of a documentary on his career in 1984. In Vic Silayan: An Actor Remembers, Mr. Silayan talks about the peculiarities and problems of filmmaking in the Philippines from an actor’s point of view. Excerpts from the interview conducted during the making of the documentary appear in the third section of the book. Much hope was pinned on the presidency of Cory Aquino following the popular uprising in February 1986. The hope was that everything, including the movies, would

change for the better. What followed however was a dry spell in film creativity. The good films that were being produced, despite the paranoid policies of Mr. Marcos on cinema, disappeared altogether. What survived the fourday revolution was the same flawed and trite Filipino film which continued to tread on escapist ideas. This period forced me to reassess my earlier assumptions about Filipino movies. There were basically two questions that I sought to answer: By making good films, can a filmmaker really improve the taste of local moviegoers for Filipino movies? Will making good films help Philippine cinema evolve so that it would have a more logical form like American movies? After much reading and reflection, I have come to the conclusion that the success of any Filipino film, in terms of public acceptance, doesn’t depend on creative decisions alone. There are many other factors that come into play: the financial and material resources available to make a movie, market size and even film history. But perhaps the most significant factor of all is the audience. This brings us to the subject of mythology. Myths are stories about people and events that we readily believe without proof. Gossip is a popular form of myth. Often the success of a movie is contingent on stars having a degree of notoriety with the public. Whether salacious information regarding certain stars is accurate is irrelevant. Movies that fan these myths are likely to do better than movies that don’t indulge the public’s craving for gossip. And what influences contemporary mythology? The level of education of a viewer is one. Low self-esteem is another. In fact the prevailing cult of celebrity is a direct result of people feeling that they lack something fundamental that

notes on philippine cinema

The Original Book Preface 16


only a bigger than life figure could assuage. The first section of this book attempts to explore the escapist appeal of mainstream cinema. Essays on mythology, form in the Filipino film, ideology and genre studies attempt to examine Philippine cinema to expose angles commonly overlooked by traditional film aesthetics. Given the present system of distribution in the country where new films have, on average, only a week to do first-run business in Metro Manila, it is difficult to see a film again on the big screen once it has fulfilled its city engagement. Filipinos have not grown accustomed to demanding revival showings. So for the reader of this book who would like to see the movies discussed in the essays, the best way to catch them is on television. Renting a videotape is also a possibility although not all titles mentioned in the book are available on video. For this reason, I have avoided doing a shot by shot analysis of films. Instead I have opted to focus on the ideological concerns of local movies. Ideology refers to the shared beliefs and biases that people have that’s often independent of reason. Audiences always look for movies that will validate the issues that they feel very strongly about. Whether if it’s a demand that movies make them laugh or that a story should reinforce the idea that rich people are bad, movies that resonate these two sentiments are likely to do better at the box office than movies that ignore them. In fact local movies historically have always stood up for the poor since they represent the industry’s market base. It’s reasonable to assume that Filipino movies will continue to uphold a pro-poor ideology as long as the Philippines remains a country with a large population of underprivileged people.

An opportunity to attend a seminar on Third World cinema in Mannheim, West Germany in 1986 made me realize that in terms of resources to make a film, there are also other countries in a similar, if not more difficult, predicament than the Philippines. Although Filipino films have more flair when it comes to storytelling compared to some films coming from Africa and South America, what sets these foreign films apart is that despite their production limitations, they see value in showing their films abroad. It is unfortunate that despite the fact that we have better-looking actors and livelier stories, our film industry remains very much insular. I have written two essays on the matter which appear in the first section of this book in the hope that Filipinos would realize that there is really a lot to gain by reaching out to a world audience. We can only earn the respect of other cultures if and when we learn how to speak for ourselves. September 1988 Manila

notes on philippine cinema

The Original Book Preface 17


form in the filipino film

notes on philippine cinema

M

any associate the word FORM with the notion of shape. But this is only one definition of form. Writing on the history of aesthetics, art scholar W. Tatarkiewicz identifies at least five meanings of form. form A Form is equivalent to the disposition, arrangement or order of parts, e.g., the form of a portico is the arrangement of its columns. form B Form also refers to what is directly given to the senses. Its opposite is content. In this sense, the sound of words in poetry is its form and their meaning is content. form C Form may mean the boundary or contour of an object. form D To Aristotle, form means the conceptual essence of an object. form E A fifth meaning was used by Kant where he described form as a contribution of the mind to the perceived object.1 Although the word form may have other suggested meanings in other fields of study, for our purposes, the use of the word will be limited to its implications on the aesthetics and theories of art.

Anak Dalita. Tony Santos, Rosa Rosal and Vic Bacani. Directed by Lamberto Avellana. classical narrative cinema 1956

Form in the Filipino Film 18


The Greeks employed the definition of form A because they were convinced that beauty, particularly of the visible and audible kind, consists in the arrangement and proportion of parts.2 Surveying the two thousand years of the history of form A, the word has come to mean correct, beautiful, harmonious and orderly arrangement. Closely associated with form A is form B. Whereas form A refers to the arrangement of parts, form B refers to the appearance of things, i.e., what is communicated. The correlates of form B are content and meaning.3 Medieval poetics identified content as comprising two elements: the subject of the work and the plot of the events narrated.4 The turning point in the history of form B occurred when some sectors raised the issue of form versus content. The years 1920 to 1939 saw the rise of formalism that supported the idea of pure form.5 According to extreme formalism, only form is important; content does not matter.6 Such a view was opposed by other scholars who countered that form only mattered if it was executed in the service of the content. Form C is concerned with spatial forms – contours – which make it a natural concept for the visual arts. 7 This is perhaps the most accessible notion of form as it is freely associated with the terms “figure” or “drawing.” The philosophical concept of Aristotle (“By form I mean the essence of each thing”) and Kant (“Form is a property of the mind which compels us to experience things in a particular form”) gives form a more universal identity by linking it to the subject of existence.8 These various definitions of form are useful at arriving at a

concept of form in film. What is film form? What constitutes film form?

notes on philippine cinema

Film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson give a more media-focused definition of the term by referring to it not as a part but as a system of relationships between elements that function both singularly and collectively. There are primarily two subsystems that constitute film form: a narrative subsystem and a stylistic subsystem.9 The narrative subsystem is made up of two elements: the story and the plot. A narrative is defined as a chain of events in cause and effect relationship occurring in time.10 The chronological order of events in film is what we refer to as a story. (The term “narrative” is different from “narration.” Although narration refers to the voice-over commentary used in many films, in narrative films, the word narration also refers to the act of presenting story information. In this essay, the term “narration” shall refer to the latter definition.) In terms of narrative development, not all films are structured chronologically. Some films start out by revealing the ending first before examining the earlier events which precipitated the opening sequence. Many scriptwriting handbooks would insist that stories begin in medias res (in the middle of things). The order in which a story is presented on screen is known as a plot. (The chronological ordering of events, or the story, is something that we mentally reconstruct while viewing a film.) The narrative, literally speaking, is one element that we do not see in a film. A story literally exists only on paper or perhaps in the writer’s mind. What we see in a film are manifestations of the narrative, i.e., the visualization of the writer’s work. Bringing to life on screen the requirements of the narrative is the task of the stylistic subsystem.

Form in the Filipino Film 19

1

W. Tatarkiewicz, “Form in the History of Aesthetics,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Vol. II, ed. by Philip P. Wiener (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), p. 216. 2 ibid., p. 217. 3 ibid., p. 219. 4 ibid., p. 220. 5 ibid., p. 220. 6 ibid., p. 221. 7 ibid., p. 222. 8 ibid., p. 222. 9 David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1979), pp. 27-28. 10 ibid., p. 50.


notes on philippine cinema

Form in the Filipino Film 20

classical narrative cinema 1984. Sister

Stella L. Vima Santos. Directed by Mike de Leon. Photo by Cesar Hernando.

The stylistic subsystem is made up of three elements: miseen-scène, editing and sound. Mise-en-scène is a French term originally employed in theater to refer to the placement of actors in relation to the arrangement of objects in a scene. Theoreticians and critics have extended the use of the term to refer to film direction.

In transforming a story into a screen image, a director must skillfully weave the four aspects of mise-en-scène: setting, costume, lighting and figure movement and expression or acting. As a film is made up of several images, these images must be arranged in a certain way so as to produce a coherent story


and elicit a desired response from the audience. This step is known as editing.

The Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino for instance defines its criteria for Best Picture as follows:

notes on philippine cinema

Sound in film is made up of three distinct recordings: dialogue or the words spoken by the actors in a film, sound effects and music. These elements, when combined, make up the film’s soundtrack.

Films are judged on how effective they fuse content and form. In this case of two films which are equally made, the film with the more significant subject matter is to be preferred.12

Although the diverse range of visual and aural elements that make up film form have their respective functions, going by the definition of form A, these elements must work together in an orderly and harmonious arrangement. One element cannot claim to be more important than the others. Neither can an element be effective without the presence of the others.

Here it is clear that content has the upper hand in the procedure for judging. With due respect to my colleagues (for we do argue about this point a lot!), the relationship between form and content should not be confined to questions that dwell on their degree of importance.

It is tempting, for instance, to say that the actor is the most important consideration in a film. Yet the greatness of an actor is completely dependent on a host of other factors – how well his lines have been written, how well he has been photographed, how well his movements have been directed and how well his scenes have been put together. Film must be viewed in its totality. An actor’s performance cannot be singled out for its merit unless one considers it in relation to the finished picture. Did the actor’s performance contribute to the success of the film? Or is it a case of an admirable performance in a bad picture? These same questions can be asked of other elements. In discussing form B, the matter of form versus content was raised. In art, content has been alternately referred to as subject matter, idea, the “thing” that a work expresses, means or denotes. If content is taken as the opposite of form, then form means external appearance or style.11 Up to the present, many scholars and critics refuse to see the two terms on equal footing.

Bordwell and Thompson point out that if film form were to be viewed as a container for ideas, like a jug, whatever is inside is therefore more important. Bordwell and Thompson find this assumption unacceptable. Content is appreciated largely because of the form by which it is presented. In film, form and content interact dynamically. One cannot draw a dividing line between the two. It is not only a question of how significant a subject matter is but also how well it is presented. A script with a great subject matter can fail with bad direction in the same way that an unremarkable idea can succeed with the help of a vivid imagination. Form and content fuse together to create meaning in film. How we come to understand a story is not solely accomplished by dialogue. If a line uttered by a character impresses us, this is the result of the inspired orchestration of mise-en-scène, editing and sound. A slight variation in the way these elements are put together can produce a different result altogether. Then again, meaning need not be verbally conveyed all the time. The expression on an actor’s face can be very powerful. Shots of static objects and screen silence can move viewers in a way that words cannot.

Form in the Filipino Film 21

W. Tatarkiewicz, “Form in the History of Aesthetics,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Vol. II ed. by Philip P. Wiener (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), p. 216. 12 Nicanor G. Tiongson (ed.), The Urian Anthology 19701979, (Manila: Manuel L. Morato, 1983), p. 3. 11


Viewers are constantly on the hunt for big meanings in a film. But it is often the ordinary moments that mean a lot. Meaning in cinema is not neutral. It is ideological. It springs from culturally motivated beliefs about the world. Religious beliefs, political opinions, conceptions of race or sex or social class, even our most unconsciously held deep-seated notions about life – all these constitute our ideological frame of reference.13 If films judge certain deeds as good or bad, these are notions that arise from socially defined conventions of human behavior. Films constantly endorse values which are often subliminally communicated. If being a lead actor means having a fair complexion and not dark Malay features, a movie that follows this practice reinforces racial prejudice. Aside from reinforcing values, films can also challenge existing values. This is the concern of many social realist dramas like Bayan Ko (1985) and Sister Stella L. (1984). Commercial film production, being a capitalist undertaking, manifests its ideological values in the way that it creates its stories. The notion of exchange is a strong motivating factor that propels the movement of many dramatic events. Between two characters, information, affection and the right to life are commodities that are exchanged in consideration

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Directed by Robert Wiene.

notes on philippine cinema

Form in the Filipino Film

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Directed by Robert Wiene.

22

Films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari eschewed realism by dramatizing the madness of the characters through highly stylized sets and macabre make-up. german expressionism

for money, property and anything of value. In fact the act of giving and receiving is the backbone of the practice of theatrical exhibition. Viewers pay an admission fee in exchange for two hours of entertainment. And for patiently sitting it out in the dark, viewers are rewarded with at least two hours of screen story. How do we describe form in the Filipino film? Film form in Philippine cinema is largely derivative of a style known as the classical Hollywood cinema. After Thomas Edison successfully presented the first moving pictures in 1893, the United States and the major economic powers in Europe began competing for control of the global film market. Cinema, being a relatively new art, attracted artists from other creative media. Film movements emerged on both sides of the Atlantic. Backed by big studios and riding on their creative philosophies, each movement sought to depict the most compelling way to tell a movie story. The notion of how reality should be dramatized was constantly challenged. As a creative response to Germany’s defeat in World War I, German expressionist artists created films that were dark both in terms of story and visuals. Expressionism (19191924), rejected photographic reality and emphasized artifice. Sets and performances were stylized. Familiar

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1979), pp. 27-28. 13


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Form in the Filipino Film 23

Battleship Potemkin (1925). Directed by Sergei Eisenstein.

Battleship Potemkin (1925). Directed by Sergei Eisenstein.

In Battleship Potemkin (1925), Eisenstein believed that the power of cinema lay in the way in which a film is edited together. In his concept of montage, the meaning that arises from the juxtaposition of two images is greater than the meaning of each image taken seperately. soviet montage

landscapes were deliberately distorted and made strange. With montage (1924-1930), Soviet directors took their inspiration from Marxist dialectics. They believed that film was a construct; reality was matter that could be created on the editing table. Meaning in film was not in the shot but in the juxtaposition of two shots. Italian Neorealism (1942-1951) sought to bring stark reality back into cinema. Rejecting the practice of glamourizing subject matter, neorealist filmmakers employed ordinary people rather than professional actors to act in their films. Real locations were favored and narratives were pared down to simple observations of everyday life. La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948). Directed by Luchino Visconti. To achieve greater realism in depicting the grinding poverty of post-war Italy, director Luchino Visconti employed ordinary people instead of professional actors to star in his movie, La Terra Trema (1948). italian neorealism

There were other major movements in film. But intelligent as these movements were, they failed to create a worldwide demand for their films. It was the style of the classical Hollywood cinema that


succeeded in capturing the imagination of the world market. It influenced the art of filmmaking in many countries, the Philippines included.

notes on philippine cinema

Form in the Filipino Film

The classical Hollywood style started to emerge around 1903. With its strong emphasis on narrative and its philosophy of film as entertainment, classical Hollywood cinema proved popular with the American public as well as the international market. In countries that had no national cinemas to speak of, American movies became the textbook example of how to make a movie. In classical Hollywood cinema, narrative development is hinged on individual character actions. The narrative employs two characters: a hero or protagonist and a villain or antagonist. Both characters are motivated by a desire to achieve something and this creates a goal for each character. Because the goal of the protagonist and antagonist run counter to one another, this opposition generates conflict, an ingredient necessary to propel the narrative forward. Resolving this conflict causes events in the film to develop in a cause and effect pattern. The cause and effect chain basically follows a question and answer pattern. The narrative raises questions in the form of problems and obstacles for the hero which it intermittently answers or resolves. As soon as the protagonist achieves his goal, the film ends. (However there are some films that opt for the nonfulfillment of a goal). Linearity and clarity are two important aspects of the classical Hollywood cinema. Bordwell notes that chronology in plot structure is favored to stress the cause and effect chain. And to tighten structure, deadlines are introduced to push narrative events towards an inevitable closure.14 Deadlines can be measured in terms of calendar days, clock time and ultimatums.15

24

Greed (1924). Directed by Erich von Stroheim.’ In classical Hollywood cinema, every element introduced in the shot must be explained or motivated. In Greed (1924) director Erich von Stroheim infuses his images with a gold tint to underscore the avarice that leads to the downfall of his characters. Greed is one of the great tragedies of Hollywood and it is considered as a lost masterwork. Too risqué for its time, Von Stroheim’s attempt to be faithful to the Frank Norris novel, McTeague, resulted in a film that originally ran for 462 minutes. MGM, the studio releasing the film, with great indifference, hacked it down to 140 minutes. TCM restored the film in 1999 to 239 minutes using surviving production stills to augment the missing footage. the presence of every element in the frame must have a motivation

Narrative subjects may vary in classical Hollywood cinema, but in terms of style, films observe a set pattern of development. First comes the exposition which specifies the time, place and relevant characters – their spatial position and their current state of mind (usually a result of previous scene). In the middle of the scene, characters act towards their goal: they struggle, make choices, make appointments, set deadlines, and plan future events. In the course of this, this classical scene continues or closes off cause and effect developments left dangling in prior scenes while also opening up new causal lines for future development. At least

David Bordwell, “Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures,” Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip Rosen. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 19. 15 ibid., p. 19. 14


one line of action must be left suspended, in order to motivate shifts to the next scene, which picks up the suspended line (often via a “dialogue hook”). Hence the famous “linearity” of classical construction – a trait not characteristic of Soviet montage films (which often refuse to demarcate scenes clearly) or of artcinema narration (with its ambiguous interplay of subjectivity and objectivity).16 Bordwell also notes that classical Hollywood narrative usually observes two plot lines: one involving heterosexual romance (boy/girl, husband/wife), the other line involving another sphere – work, war, a mission or quest, other personal relationships. Each line will possess a goal, obstacles and climax.17 Narrative development is guided by logic and motivation. Any element introduced in the film, whether visual or aural, and any event which transpires in the plot must have sufficient justification for its presentation. A character, once introduced in the story, must have a purpose for existing. How he accomplishes his task must be justified by his accorded traits. Any development that seem improbable can work against the credibility of the narrative. Logic is an important consideration when structuring the cause and effect chain. Viewers must believe the resolution that a film offers for the problems raised in the narrative. Every element introduced in the film must help the narrative move forward. In terms of clarity, it is imperative that viewers must have no problem comprehending developments in the story. Mise-en-scène, editing and sound are harnessed to answer the demands of the narrative. Only classical narration favors a style which strives for utmost denotative clarity from moment to moment. Each scene’s temporal relation to its predecessor will

notes on philippine cinema

Form in the Filipino Film 25

San Francisco (1936). Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. By decreasing the length of a shot, filmmakers learned early on that this helped accelerate screen action. This technique was used to great effect in the remarkable earthquake sequence created by special effects expert, Slavko Vorkapich, for director Woody S. Van Dyke’s film, San Francisco (1936). The earthquake motivates the film’s abrupt shift from placid to rapid editing in the second half of the movie. editing for impact

be signaled early and unequivocally (by intertitles, conventional clues, a line of dialogue). Lighting must pick up figure from ground; color must define planes; in each shot the focus of interest will tend to be centered in relation to the sides of the frame. Sound recording is perfected so as to allow for a maximum clarity of dialogue. Camera movements aim at creating an unambiguous, voluminous space… Classical editing aims at making each shot the logical outcome of its predecessors and at reorienting the spectator through repeated setups. Disoriented editing, as in Slavko Vorkapich’s sequence of the earthquake in San Francisco, is motivated by the chaos of the action depicted. Stylistic disorientation, in short, is permissible when it conveys disorienting story situations.18

ibid., p. 20. ibid., p. 19. 18 ibid., pp. 26-27. 16 17


Filipino viewers enthralled by the nuances of the classical Hollywood cinema and who have had greater exposure to Western education are inclined to look favorably at local films that observe the unified, logical and tight structure of the classical narrative.

notes on philippine cinema

Form in the Filipino Film

This explains the critical support given to such films as Lamberto Avellana’s Anak Dalita (1956) and Badjao (1957), the major works of Gerardo de Leon such as 48 Oras (1950), Sisa (1951) and Noli Me Tangere (1961), the major works of Lino Brocka such as Maynila: Sa Kuko ng Liwanag (1975), Jaguar (1979) and Bayan Ko (1985) and practically all of Mike de Leon’s films, from Itim (1976) to Sister Stella L. (1984).

26

Sister Stella L. (1984). Vilma Santos, Adul de Leon.

Criticisms often hurled against the bulk of Filipino movies dwell on their failure to be patterned more after the structure of the classics. Many Filipino films are dismissed as outright stupid for not having the intellectual weight of their Western counterparts. It is common to come across reviews that attack deviations of Filipino movies from the classical structure by calling them “flaws.” Observations by noted man of Philippine literature, Wilfrido Nolledo, published in 1988, carry a cutting perception so typical of many critical writings on Philippine cinema. Here, Nolledo criticizes the shallowness and derivative nature of the Filipino movie, i.e., its inability to restrain itself from mating genres within a genre. Another disquieting note is how our movie industry, already eroded in its foundations, has been dominated, captured without resistance, by megastars and other glittery phenomena to the extent where its product, the movie per se, has been suffering from an identity crisis. Meaning that this, the most collaborative of all art forms, cannot quite stand on its own or enjoy a separate persuasion without the hideous impositions/

Like the fascist dictator, Adolf Hitler, Ferdinand Marcos labelled his political opponents “communists.” The most prominent victim of his communist witch-hunt was Ninoy Aquino. To be branded as a communist under the dictatorship meant one could be subject to a warrantless arrest or forced disappearance. With a president delusional with the thought that he was beyond criticism, most Filipinos opted to be politically indifferent during the Marcos regime. This was the position mirrored by Sister Stella Legaspi at the beginning of Sister Stella L. political climate in 1984

juxtapositions of subgenres and the bottomless pit of bastardization. In short, when was the last time you saw a Tagalog movie that glowed in its own merits, without bringing on the blood of others?... Because rollback capital is of the essence, the ordinary venture precludes in-depth preparation, intellectual germination, and all the other indulgences associated with serious filmmaking. Why would anyone in his/ her right producer’s mind want to try another Sister Stella L.? 19 Sister Stella L. is, of course Mike de Leon’s celebrated 1984 film that unfortunately never found a huge audience. Produced at a time when anti-Marcos sentiments were running high following the assassination of Benigno

Wilfrido D. Nolledo, “Don’t Say State of the Art When You’re Talking About Tagalog Movies.” Sunday Inquirer Magazine, July 31, 1988, pp. 4-6. 19


critic of social injustice.

notes on

Despite its religious theme, the film manages to fit in a romantic angle by introducing the character of Nick Fajardo (Jay Ilagan), a journalist, as Sister Stella’s jilted suitor.

Sister Stella L. (1984). After declaring Martial Law in 1972, Marcos outlawed strikes and rallies to give the country a semblance of economic stability before the eyes of foreign investors. To enforce his edict, Marcos used the military and the police to harass, abduct, torture or murder those who openly challenged his rule. Remnants of this practice continue to haunt the country today.

Sister Stella’s desire to serve the people of God by involving herself in the plight of the oppressed is opposed by a number of characters. Nick refuses to believe her at first, convinced that she is a half-baked radical acting out of guilt. Gigi (Gina Alajar), Sister Stella’s convent ward, single but four months pregnant, questions God’s wisdom in making people suffer, hoping to enrage Sister Stella and make her doubt her beliefs. Moreover, her religious superiors are against her pro-labor activities.

political climate in 1984

Aquino, Jr., the film was widely praised by critics both for its political courage and its disciplined, classical narrative structure. In terms of form, Sister Stella L. observes the twin plot structure of character goal and heterosexual romance identified by Bordwell.

But Sister Stella remains steadfast in her mission. She finds an ally in her tukayo or namesake, Sister Stella Bautista (Laurice Guillen), whose radical views are likewise frowned upon by their religious order. Through her, Sister Stella is introduced to Ka Dencio (Tony Santos), the labor leader who had organized the strike against the company, Republic Cooking Oil. The strikers want better pay but management refuses to give in to their demands.

Sister Stella Legaspi (Vilma Santos) is introduced to us as a politically indifferent nun, a position opted for by many Filipinos at that time in view of the communist paranoia of the Marcos dictatorship.

When the nuns join the picket, Sister Stella becomes embroiled in the harassment and terrorism perpetuated by management against the strikers. She learns that Ka Dencio’s son has been assaulted and the family house fired upon by unidentified men. As a delivery truck tries to break through the picket line, she witnesses the company guards attack the strikers and threaten them with death.

When a labor dispute erupts in a nearby depressed area, Sister Stella is drawn to the plight of the strikers. Her exposure to the struggle of the oppressed factory workers shakes her traditional views of religion. The film follows her transformation from a passive religious to an outspoken

Then Ka Dencio, and subsequently Sister Stella and Nick, are abducted by the company goons. Ka Dencio is tortured in the presence of Sister Stella and Nick. When the two try to intervene, Nick is threatened with a gun and Sister Stella with rape. They fail to save to Ka Dencio who’s later killed.

philippine cinema

Form in the Filipino Film 27


Instead of discouraging her, the incident makes Sister Stella more determined. She returns to the picket line and urges the strikers to resist tyranny and to fight for their rights.

notes on philippine cinema

Form in the Filipino Film

Dialectic in structure, Sister Stella L. observes the classical narrative tradition of linearity, logic and motivation. The film begins on an ambivalent note with Sister Stella unsure of her political stand. After a series of ideological confrontations, the film builds up to a climax where the protagonist urges the workers to assert their rights and to fight injustice.

28

Sister Stella’s character change is logically motivated. Her passivity in the beginning is challenged by Nick’s criticism that the only thing nuns like her do is pray. Her political awareness comes with her direct exposure to the strikers. Her desire to become a concerned citizen triggers a cause and effect chain that encourages the workers to remain steadfast to the dismay of management. Each character in the film plays a significant role. This film is a rare instance where significant subject matter is brilliantly realized on film. Through Sister Stella, the film exposes viewers to the various issues affecting labor. Likewise, the film employs other characters to touch on a number of issues deemed controversial during the Marcos years. Through Nick, we learn about the absence of press freedom. After writing an article critical of the military, his editor’s attempt to include it in a magazine is thwarted by the publisher who orders the printing stopped. Through Sister Stella Bautista, we learn about human rights violations committed by the military in the rural areas. In terms of the stylistic subsystem, the film has everything it takes to be named best picture. The images are crisp

In local movies, having a seamless narrative is unimportant. What’s more relevant to the audience is the actor that’s starring in a movie. Audiences expect the star to play himself from film to film. Celebrities, like deities, mirror our deepest longings such as the need for validation or the desire to misbehave without consequence. On his way to siring 72 children, Ramon Revilla reveals the secret of his success in the ad copy for his movie, Asawa Ko Silang Lahat (Sa Puting Tabing) (1977). the cult of celebrity


and powerful, editing is tight and the element of sound is appropriate. The film is uniformly well acted by its large cast, a rare feat in Philippine cinema. But despite its timely issue and the casting of Vilma Santos in the lead role, the film proved difficult to sell at the box office. With its excellent form and many subsequent awards, the film is undoubtedly a textbook example of good filmmaking. But a film like Sister Stella L. has always been an exception rather than the rule. Just like many other noteworthy Filipino films in the past, innovation always stops with the original. With insufficient support from the moviegoing public, a film like Sister Stella L. hardly begets sequels, much less imitations. Despite its critical reputation, it would be incorrect to say that a film like Sister Stella L., in terms of film form, is representative of mainstream Philippine cinema. The mainstream Filipino film has a form which differs significantly from the classical narrative. For one thing, mainstream Filipino films have meager plots. They are weak on logic and motivation. They are predictable. Their narrative structure is prone to digressions. Moreover any attempt at serious storytelling is compromised by the inflexible persona of the star whose reluctance to “disappear into a role” undermines the credibility of the plot. Films that observe this form are generally ignored by critics for they go against the “rules” of classical narrative. Many critics and scholars and basically any viewer who has developed a critical understanding of the form of Western cinema view these violations as “flaws.” I disagree with this conclusion. If mainstream Filipino films have been manifesting these “flaws” for decades with no reform in sight, they shouldn’t

be considered as errors in filmmaking. If they are evident in the majority of the Filipino movies being produced, then they should be instead considered as traits. In terms of form, they constitute the characteristics of our cinema. They may appear intellectually appalling. Nevertheless they have thrived and survived despite bad reviews and industry upheavals. Form in Philippine cinema (and in other foreign cinemas) is determined not only by purely creative decisions but also by pragmatic ones. Filipino movies have to be produced with less raw materials. Film stock, being an imported commodity, is one of the most expensive items on the budget. Filipino films have to be made with less film stock. This explains why Filipino films look less polished when compared to major releases from abroad. Because of the spiraling cost of production, Filipino films have to be completed in the fewest number of days possible. Market size also has an influence over the form of Filipino movies. Filipino films are produced primarily for local consumption. Developing a foreign market has never been a priority of the film industry. As such, Filipino movies have never been forced to upgrade their technical calibre in order to meet international standards. The absence of pressure on quality has resulted in the slack attitude towards classical narrative concerns. This insular viewpoint has influenced the way stories are written for our movies (since they would be seen only by Filipinos) and the manner in which they are visualized on screen (if Filipinos can understand them, then they are okay). In terms of form, mainstream Philippine cinema manifests four traits: a scene-oriented narrative, a tendency for overt representation, circumlocutory dialogue and a narrative

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Form in the Filipino Film 29


that emphasizes the centrality of the star.

notes on philippine cinema

1. SCENE-ORIENTED NARRATIVE

Form in the Filipino Film

Narrative in classical Hollywood cinema is plot-oriented. In the interest of problem-solving, the element of conflict and the subsequent ordering of cause and effect underscores the importance of guiding viewers as to what to expect from a film. The classical narrative’s perpetual rush to move from one event to the next arises from the need to sustain interest in plot resolution. Scenes are not allowed to drag for they risk breaking the illusionary hold that a film has over its viewers. On the other hand, narrative in Philippine cinema is sceneoriented. Although movies employ actors as causal agents and conflict is resorted to trigger a cause and effect chain, the narrative tends to bank heavily on individual scenes instead of sizing them up in relation to an overall plot. A scene is defined as a distinct phase of narrative action, a major development in the story.20 It may be represented by several shots or by just one. In the process of resolving narrative conflict, major and minor problems crop up. Through exposition in the classical scene, problems are resolved, new problems are introduced while others are left hanging, awaiting resolution in the succeeding scenes. In the Filipino narrative, scenes are played out in a protracted manner reminiscent of the tableau structure of early cinema. According to scholar Nicanor Tiongson, Philippine cinema inherited many of its practices from local theatrical forms that flourished during the period of Spanish colonization.21 When the first Filipino theatre artists moved to the new medium of film, they brought with them traditions of Filipino theatre such as exaggerated acting and “poetic” and “archaic” dialogue. Scenes were covered with a static, full-

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Citizen Kane (1941). Directed by Orson Welles. classical hollywood cinema is plot-oriented

Good writing is the backbone of every great film. Citizen Kane, acknowledged as the greatest American film ever made, uses the first word uttered in the movie, “Rosebud,” to tie together an intricate plot told in flashbacks about an egocentric newspaper magnate. On the other hand, the recalcitrant attitude of Filipino movies towards good writing mirrors an undercurrent of resentment towards Western concepts of form and order which local filmmakers readily disregard in favor of improvisation and stroke-inducing character outburst that actually do little to move the plot forward.

shot camera angle which sought to duplicate the theatrical proscenium where characters entered and exited.22 In classical Hollywood cinema, scripts are written with the objective of resolving one primary conflict. The source of conflict is formidable and it poses a challenge to the protagonist who must rise above his fears in order to vanquish his opponent. Filipino mainstream movies on the other hand are less rigid in structure primarily because the main character doesn’t have a clear-cut goal in the story. Instead, scriptwriters give him general attributes like bravery, the capacity to persevere, even bitchiness; qualities that are put to a test when he or she enounters another character who disdains

Bordwell and Thompson, op. cit., p 234. 21 Nicanor G. Tiongson, “Four Values in Filipino Drama and Film,” The Urian Anthology 19701979, ed. by Nicanor G. Tiongson (Manila: Manuel L. Morato, 1983), p. 103. 22 Bienvenido Lumbera, “Kasaysayan at Tunguhin ng Pelikulang Pilipino (History and Prospects of the Filipino Film),” The Urian Anthology 1970-1979, (Manila: Manuel L. Morato, 1983), p. 30. 20


such attributes.

if its singled out in a trailer, creates recall for a movie.

notes on

The problem triggered by this confrontation may seem underwhelming, even petty, when compared to an American movie. But the simplicity of the conflict is necessary as it must be within the power of the protagonist to solve. It’s a task that’s tailor-made to capitalize on the talent that makes an actor appealing to his fans such as his awesome fighting skills or his ability to make people laugh or cry. So if a character is introduced as an unschooled folkhero fighting for the rights of the downtrodden, he is not going to resort to sound legal arguements to win his case. To score points with the moviegoer, logic will be dispensed with so that our hero could land as many blows as he can on his opponent. And since most endearing local movie characters are unschooled, this curtails the kind of subjects that could be tackled on screen. A plot that requires the use of techincal or specialized terms, for instance, is off the table since it’s seen as a chore for both the character and the audience. An undemanding plot, in turn, imposes limits on directorial style which musn’t be too showy as it may get in the way of understanding the movie. As such, bruised egos, hurt feelings or misunderstandings often suffice as conflict source. They are valued not so much for their contribution to plot development but for the opportunity that they provide in allowing characters to go ballistic and over the top with their acting. In melodrama, in scenes were a tearful parting would suffice, actors are encouraged to bawl and wail to describe their grief. In action films, brawls erupt at the mere insinuation that a character is less than manly. In fact it’s almost expected that characters should behave outrageously as some point in the film as the act of creating a scene or a scandal, particularly

Perhaps the major difference between a Filipino film narrative and that of the classical Hollywood cinema is that the former is more concerned with theatrics than analytical problem solving which is the thrust of the latter. This indulgent style accounts for the uneven pacing of Filipino movies. Scenes are played out to the point of tediousness in an effort to extract the last laugh or tear possible from a given moment. Unlike in classical Hollywood cinema where scenes build up to a climax, Filipino film narratives are anticlimactic because the most inspired parts of the plot are scenes that usually occur in the middle of the movie. And because of the indifference expressed towards credible problem solving, Filipino films oftentimes conclude with a forced ending: terrible problems are resolved like magic and the most desired fantasies come true. In the Filipino film narrative, scenes exist with a certain degree of autonomy such that their occurrence need not be motivated by any previous scene or event. In contrast to the classical Hollywood narrative where plots are specific in their objectives (e.g. the search for the meaning of Rosebud in Citizen Kane), plots in Filipino movies are quite general in their intent. Scenes are not held together by a common objective. Characters often have a vague idea of what they want to do. In the absence of what screenwriting manuals call “the or else factor,” characters are not pressured into racing against time. This explains why the plot of a Filipino film is prone to excesses and digressions. Digressions may take several forms: song and dance numbers in a non-musical genre, fantasy sequences where characters imagine themselves to be in a desirable situation or in the company of a love interest, short comic moments where dead people come back to life to scare the living and

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Form in the Filipino Film 31


travelogue inserts in Filipino films shot abroad.

notes on philippine

Musical digressions are included to showcase an actor’s special talents (if the actor happens to be known as a singer or dancer or both). Often, the intention is to simply cash in on the popularity of a song or dance or a love team. It is also resorted to as a novelty item in cases where an actor cannot sing at all.

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Form in the Filipino Film 32

These digressions do very little to help move the story forward. Since these digressions can take up a sizable portion of the film, they contribute to the patchy narrative development of mainstream Filipino movies. Many view this inconstant approach as indicative of the low intellectual calibre of mainstream Filipino films. Many refuse to see it otherwise. But the pliant attitude of moviegoers has encouraged producers to push Philippine cinema towards the form by which it is known today. 2. OVERT REPRESENTATION

In terms of mise-en-scène, Filipino movies readily resort to the overt representation of narrative events. Filipino movies play it straight by not indulging in intellectual or oblique styles of narration that risk alienating viewers. Strategies employed by Filipino movies to make them accessible to their viewers include reaching for the obvious, using dichotomy, exaggeration, repetition and being graphic in depicting screen action. To create an impact, Filipino movies exploit the raw sting of the vernacular . Subtlety and symbolism are downplayed to heighten the impact of literal excess. It is this predictable stance that many discriminating viewers see as the inherent weakness of Filipino movies. But in a country where good education is a privilege rather than a right, movies have to conform to the level of expectation of viewers who do not

During the Martial Law years, the Marcos-appointed censorship board saw to it that no shots of exposed nipples or genitals made it to the movie screen. Vernacular words deemed “dirty” were ordered erased from movie soundtracks. To get around the problem, Regal Films ordered director Elwood Perez to shoot Waikiki (1980) in Hawaii so the company could fool around with the title. Although “Kiki” is a fairly common nickname for women in the West, in the Philippines it’s simply a slang for vagina. Aside from dropping the first 3 letters of the title in lines 3 and 5 of the movie’s print ad, Regal Film enthusiastically mispronounced the title in the movie trailer as “KI-KEH-KI-KEH-KI-KEH...” By 1984, the dictatorship dropped all pretense by finally allowing the screening of sexually explicit local movies in an effort to distract the public clamoring for an end to one-man rule. sex in philippine cinema 1980


notes on philippine cinema

have access to higher education.

Form in the Filipino Film

Seeking out the obvious is the strategy of director Elwood Perez. In order to cue viewers to the forthcoming New York trip of Bembol Roco’s character in Pinay, American Style (1979), the film opens with a shot of the sign “New York Street” in Cubao to establish his residence. In Waikiki (1980), first-time Hawaii visitor Alicia Alonzo utters the line, “Talaga ngang nasa Amerika na ako,” as daughter Rio Locsin drives her past a street lined with American flags. In Miracle of Love (1982), true-to-life leukemia victim Roxanne Abad Santos, realizing the hopelessness of her condition, cries in a cemetery. Dichotomy or stark contrast is the stuff that melodramas are made of. Films depict extremes of wealth and poverty on purely material considerations. In Cumbanchera (1951), a narrow street separates the neighborhood squatters from the fortress-like mansion of Tessie Agana’s family. As melodramas would have it, those who have less in life should have more in characterization. In Cumbanchera and in other melodramas that depict class rivalry, the poor are depicted as rich in spirit while the affluent are just plain mean. Dichotomy also dictates notions of beauty in Filipino movies. Beauty is associated with fair complexion while ugliness is associated with dark skin. This bias is best reflected in the film Cofradia (1951) in which the title character played by Gloria Romero is born with charcoalblack skin. Her stepmother and sisters find her repulsive and treats her like a slave. A figure from heaven saves her

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there will be blood In Philippine cinema sex is often depicted as a source of trauma rather than pleasure for a woman. Hence what emerges from her body is blood and we see plenty of it trickling down her legs as when she gets raped, has a miscarriage or an abortion. In Tagos ng Dugo (1987) directed by Maryo de los Reyes, the lead character played by Vilma Santos turns into a killer each time she has her painful menstrual period. The cramps that drive her crazy is a condition that she associates with having been raped as a young girl.


from her predicament by giving her a candle that, when lit, lightens her complexion. With her new beauty, she becomes the toast of the town’s bachelors. In Filipino movies, drama is synonymous with exaggeration. In many films, scenes of cruelty, violence and torrid sex are depicted with little restraint so that they border on distasteful. In Tagos ng Dugo (1987), a young girl is raped after her parents are murdered. While she’s being abused, blood from her murdered mother’s body drips through the ceiling and falls on her forehead. In Kapag Napagod ang Puso (1988), a harassed movie director (Christopher de Leon) takes out his frustration on his young wife (Snooky Serna) by smashing her face, pounding her head on the wall and punching her pregnant body black and blue. Once it was sufficient to depict adult activities by implication. To speak of sex on screen, it was enough to show a couple closing a door as they entered a room. A passionate embrace or a kiss is always followed by a quick fade to black. But nowadays, with sexual liberation and the heightened sense of realism demanded by viewers, Filipino movies have become more graphic in their treatment of sexual matters. There is now a greater curiosity for the phenomenon of the woman’s body. It is a must to depict menstruation (Tagos ng Dugo), labor pains (Kapag Napagod ang Puso) and a miscarriage (Burlesque Queen, 1977) by showing blood stains on the garment near the area of the vagina and blood trickling down a woman’s leg. The first signs of pregnancy are always dramatized by showing a woman throwing up in a sink (Pasan Ko ang Daigdig, 1987). Abortion scenes have a very clinical look: a woman must be shown lying down with her legs in stirrups as a doctor or quack performs the bloody operation. Since abortion is illegal in the Philippines, it is common to depict abortion scenes ending in tragedy. In Celso Ad. Castillo’s Nympha (1971), a woman is left to die naked, wallowing

in her own blood on the floor after doctors fail to stop her bleeding following an abortion. Childbirth scenes are just as graphic. In Nunal sa Tubig (1977), a baby’s head is shown emerging from a vagina. With the increasingly relaxed attitude towards sex in Filipino movies, filmmakers have been pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable. Peque Gallaga’s Scorpio Nights (1985) shows actor Daniel Fernando furiously masturbating while watching through a hole in the floor his downstairs neighbors having sex. In Tata Esteban’s Hubo sa Dilim (1985), Maria Isabel Lopez’s character dies with a sword thrust up her vagina. In Elwood Perez’s Silip (1985) Maria Isabel Lobez and Sarsi Emmanuelle get gangraped by what appears to be the entire male population of a seaside village. Since Filipino movie characters are always cursed with a short to-do list within a story, local movies resort to repetition to meet the demand of a two-hours running time. This is particularly true of films that bank on explicit sex to attract the public. Snake Sisters (1984) and Scorpio Nights begin, move and end with couples copulating for long stretches of time. Repetition is also used in comedies to extend a joke’s setup. When a character senses an opportunity to make another character look dumb, he can pose the same question over and over so that by the time the scene gets to the punchline, the joke is often dead in the water. In some cases, the punchline itself is repeated, just in case the audience failed to pick it up. The unabashed use of repetition is a tacit acknolwedgement by producers that comprehension is an issue among local viewers. Movie producers are movie fans to begin with and they are not to be trifled with when it comes to deciding what they could inject into a movie to increase its commercial

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Form in the Filipino Film 34


Bituing Walang Ningning (1985). Sharon Cuneta, Cherie Gil. Directed by Emmanuel Borlaza.

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Form in the Filipino Film 35

Camp cinema is a variant of traditional screen melodrama. In camp movies like Bituing Walang Ningning (1985) women are depicted in two extremes. They are either professional virgins or bitches. The virtuous type, although sexually repressed, is usually talented but misunderstood, underappreciated and underestimated. The vamp on the other hand is brash, vile and vicious, Both possess the emotional disposition of gay men who long to be tamed by a straight man whom they hope to shower with love. Sharon Cuneta’s fame during the 1980s rested on her image as the wholesome sugary sweet songbird from the poor side of town. Her rise from fan to rival rankles Cherie Gil’s diva character in Bituin Walang Ningning who snaps at her with the memorable put-down, “You’re nothing but a second-rate, trying-hard copycat!” In camp cinema, dramatic moments tend to be exaggerated that they often come off as humorous. over the top

appeal. Their disdain for subtleties, for story details that are difficult to discern by a regular moviegoers, is evident on their insistence that everything in a movie has to be loud,

particularly dialogue. Despite having a microphone on the set, actors are told to speak loud and scream if necessary to show off their acting chops. Producers would rather err on


the side of offending the discriminating moviegoer whose numbers hardly matter than risk the ire of the multitude who want their entertainment easily understood. 3. CIRCUMLOCUTORY DIALOGUE

Unlike in the classical Hollywood cinema where screen dialogue is direct, unraveling and stringently composed, dialogue in Filipino movies is circumlocutory. A great deal of words is uttered that, although colorful and engaging to hear, appear to be an end to itself and do little to advance the story. Dialogue in the classical Hollywood cinema is employed to drive the narrative forward. Its insistence on precise syntax is in keeping with the classical narrative’s time-conscious structure of meeting a goal at an appointed deadline. Good dialogue, as American screenwriting manuals would put it, must seek the essential. In writing dialogue, writers must learn to cut, condense, intensify and tighten.23 Write the answer down as simply and as clearly as possible, always shunning the cliché. The design of a significant dialogue speech is like that of a story. Your beginning states the premise, catches the bearer’s interest. Your middle intensifies it. Your finish is the punch position, the convincer.24 In contrast, dialogue in Filipino mainstream cinema is less circumscribed as it is used to expand a scene. Characters try to upstage one another by delivering pointed, highly charged dialogue that either intimidates or agitates another character. The wordy pursuit of Filipino film narratives has its roots in traditional local stage presentations. In the karagatan, the duplo and the balagtasan, participants engage in a play of words, a verbal joust.25 The recital of verse is

extemporaneous and participants are applauded based on their ability to respond in witty verses.

notes on philippine cinema

The fascination for verbal play has been carried over to the movies. Dialogue can vary from saccharine to scathing depending on the image of the actor. Today, the era of the purely vernacular movie has come to pass. Dialogue in contemporary Filipino movies freely alternates between English and Filipino.

Form in the Filipino Film 36

A typical example is Emmanuel Borlaza’s Bituing Walang Ningning (1985). In one scene, neophyte singer Dorina Pineda (Sharon Cuneta) is formally launched as the new recording star of Zoni Records. The affair is graced by reigning star Lavinia Arguelles (Cherie Gil), Dorina’s idol, now her singing rival. Dorina goes on stage and acknowledges her presence. DORINA: My first song is dedicated to my favorite singer, Miss Lavinia Arguelles. This is your favorite. Dorina gives a complete rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” The audience is elated, giving Dorina a standing ovation, but Lavinia is not. Finally, Dorina walks up to Lavinia. DORINA: Nagustuhan mo ba? LAVINIA: Sinira mo ang kanta! Binaboy mo! Baliw ang nagsasabing isinilang na ang aking karibal. You’ll never make it! Lavinia gets up from her seat. LAVINIA: You’re nothing but a second-rate, trying hard copycat! With this statement, Lavinia splashes her drink on Dorina’s face and walks out.

Wells Root, Writing the Script, (New York: Holt, Rienhart and Winston, 1979), p. 116. 24 ibid., pp. 117119. 25 Asuncion David Maramba (ed.), Early Philippine Literature (Second Edition, Manila: National Book Store, 1971), pp. 172-173. 23


The idiosyncrasies of Filipino movie dialogue are influenced by a number of factors. Aside from the fact that most scripts are hastily written, ad-libbing on the set is encouraged. Many new stars view this as a talent, to the dismay of stage-trained performers. In some productions, scripts are prepared by a committee. And it’s not uncommon for stories to be improvised on the set. Taglish, or the anarchic marriage of English and Tagalog is, of course, widely accepted. Its use has been institutionalized by Philippine mass media. Taglish is resorted to when efforts to convey a statement entirely in English fail. Speakers use Tagalog words to make up for the words that couldn’t be expressed in English. In the example above, English sentences are freely combined with sentences in Tagalog. There are no hard and fast rules when combining words from both languages. It is all based on expediency. Factors like these contribute to the pastiche form of Filipino movies. 4. CENTRALITY OF THE STAR

In Philippine cinema, the star doesn’t vanish to emerge as a character. But rather, the script character must conform to the personality of the star. In Western cinema, actors are admired for the great pains that they take to create a credible fictional character on screen. But in Philippine cinema, actors are paid well to portray themselves on screen. To attain popularity, stars must be able to project a certain image that is both appealing and appropriate to their physique. The cult of the star is such that moviegoers must recognize his image first (in the trailer or in the print advertisement) before they patronize a movie. This means

that the star must have an identifiable trait. Hence, Maricel Soriano is mataray or bitchy. Fernando Poe, Jr. is siga or tough. Ramon Revilla has his anting-anting or amulet. And Nora Aunor is martir or a martyr. If moviegoers find a trait appropriate for an actor, they must sense this trait in every movie that actor makes. This explains why an actor, even though his or her character name changes from movie to movie, practically portrays the same character – himself or herself. Typecasting is a must in Philippine cinema. Actors who insist on trying out different roles (e.g. from gangster to romantic lead) risk “confusing” the public. Since typecasting is an important marketing consideration, film stories are made to fit the image of the star. Scenes are conceived to showcase the star’s most sought-after quality. For Maricel Soriano, this means kicking and screaming at her co-stars. For Fernando Poe, Jr., this means punching the living daylights out of every opponent. For Ramon Revilla, this means surviving a hail of bullets thanks to his amulet. And for Nora Aunor, this means surviving the maltreatment of the well-to-do and the powerful. Within the star system, the narrative and stylistic subsystems are subservient to thepersonality of the star. During filming, for instance, it is common for actors to insist on bringing their own clothes and have dialogue rewritten to conform to their manner of speaking. In contrast to print advertisements of American movies where only the lead actor and actress can have their names above the title, Filipino movie advertisements as well as the opening credit sequence of a film can have five or more names above the title. For an actor, being in the limelight carries many privileges as well as responsibilities. The Filipino as an actor in the

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movies is discussed more thoroughly in a separate essay, murder by fame.

notes on philippine cinema

Talking about the state of Philippine cinema inevitably raises the view about the need to improve the quality of our movies. This expectation is indicative of the rift in thinking between those considered knowledgeable about film art and the majority appeased by the status quo. The seeming lack of intellectual weight of mainstream Filipino movies has been a concern for several decades. Yet the issue is not as simple as producing a “quality picture.”

Form in the Filipino Film 38

The Experimental Cinema of the Philippines was a valiant effort of the Marcos dictatorship to bankroll prestige productions using government funds. 1982 saw the production of Himala directed by Ishmael Bernal and Oro, Plata, Mata directed by Peque Gallaga. But ECP’s subsequent releases, Soltero directed by Pio De Castro III and the costly Misteryo sa Tuwa directed by Abbo de la Cruz, both released in 1984, were less successful. The inability of both films to turn in a profit proved what industry players understood all along: ignoring what the public wanted was a bad idea. 26

In fact several quality pictures have been produced in the past. Even with limited resources, it is not impossible to go strictly by the norms of the classical Hollywood narrative and produce an outstanding Filipino film. But sustaining quality productions with little market support is difficult, as the Marcos-backed Experimental Cinema of the Philippines found out during the dictatorship.26 Changing the form of Philippine movies, if this is desired, is not merely a question of money. A filmmaker must take many factors into consideration: current industry practices, the state of education in the country, the prevailing economic conditions, even the notion of contemporary mythology. Whether these factors observe a positive or negative trend, they do exert a great influence on what people expect to see in a movie. It is incorrect to assume that since movies are easy to understand, they can be looked at as simple creations. But they are not. Not only is film made up of different elements, it evolves because it responds to certain needs of society. These diverse issues are discussed in other essays in this online film anthology. -0-

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Notes on Philippine Cinema  

Collected writings on Philippine cinema by Emmanuel Anastacio Reyes. This first volume contains the following essays: 1. Introduction to t...

Notes on Philippine Cinema  

Collected writings on Philippine cinema by Emmanuel Anastacio Reyes. This first volume contains the following essays: 1. Introduction to t...

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