The role of the film critic in cultural discourse
The absence of critical thinking in the Philippines has led to a disastrous state of affairs. Philippine cultural training, as implemented by its educational institutions, is still reliant on the top-down dissemination of knowledge and the propagation of assumptions that are meant to be beyond questioning. So when you engage in the practice of criticism, you also have the potential of applying your skills to a wider cross-section of the body politic, evaluating issues of varying complexities, according to how the solutions can best benefit the widest and most needful sectors of society.
Regarding Philippine film criticism, the first thing that anyone should be aware of is the fact that film was originally introduced during the late Spanish era, by investors who wanted to turn a profit, as they still do today. But when the Spaniards were shortly thereafter replaced by the Americans, the fast-evolving media of photography, and later film, were deliberately deployed by colonial officials to rationalize the colonization project. If we take a leap to the present, we can see how the celluloid-to-digital transition had succeeded so overwhelmingly that the industry was able to develop a burgeoning independent-cinema scene.
The connection with the early years of U.S. colonization becomes apparent when we see how until recently, films were being finished for the explicit purpose of making a splash in overseas festivals. In that way, we managed to achieve American self-colonization, producing cultural artifacts that made use of the local audience’s real lives as raw material, but which were never intended for their own consumption and appreciation. I use the past tense in describing this state of affairs because the situation has peaked, and with that peak, its possible closure became discernible, when in recent months, Filipino entries in the so-called Big Three European film festivals won major prizes.
For me, the lesson here is a confirmation of what I had always believed in: that among all possible types of professionals, artists (including writers) have the capacity to change for the better, with the rest of society and the world waiting to act as witnesses. Critics, when they’re lucky, should be in the position to herald the good news, or to demand for it when necessary. But honestly, if anyone were to ask me right now what she or he needs to prepare to get into film criticism, I would first respond by answering: Is there an urgent need for it, a life-and-death situation that has the potential to turn tragic if another option, another desire intervenes and replaces this first one?
Like all defensive responses, this one reflects on me, the questioner, rather than the one being questioned. Rather than recount the many disappointments I had during my membership with the Filipino Film Critics Circle, I’d prefer to share with you the positive lessons I picked up.
First, the members’ practice of rewatching films in contention, as many times as necessary until they’re able to arrive at a consensus, was something I’d already been doing, but it reaffirmed my personal realization that films deserved as much close and precise observation as we bestow unquestioningly on fine arts and literary products.
Second, the ability of colleagues who can productively engage in discussions where we critique one another’s criticism is a rarity even among fellow critics, but an invaluable treasure when it comes along. Third is the humbling discovery that critical thinking is not the exclusive province of critics. The greatest artists throughout history had made that discovery for themselves, and their special gift to critics is the difficult-yet-productive exercise we get when we undertake a study of their body of work.
The last matter I wish to raise about criticism is the fact that although people respond enthusiastically to a phenomenon, this should never be seen as a weakness to pamper, but rather as an opportunity to elevate discourse. The ideal for the critic would be the generation of relevant, complex, and progressive ideas in the simplest language that they could embody without betraying or compromising their content. The tension in this formulation derives from a false opposition between the scholarly writer and the journalist, or what I once innocently called the critic and the reviewer. To me, these distinctions matter less today. The contemporary film critic would, or should, actually function as someone who keeps abreast of new writings in cinema and media studies, who also seeks to popularize these ideas when they pertain to certain recent film releases or trends.
There are two points I could never over-emphasize. One is that the use of theory in writing reviews may or may not be foregrounded, but it should be capable of providing a framework for the critic’s take on the film or films being discussed. Another is that this framework is not the usual operationalizing of correctly understood concepts that we learn to do in school. This means that while the critic may explain her harsh or dismissive take by referring to the underlying principles of any theory, the critic should also ensure that she had managed to evaluate the theory in terms of its appositeness, relevance, explanatory potential, progressiveness, and other questions essential to what we may call theory appreciation.
Although I may have accumulated this collection of insights on what an effective film critic would be like, I would be lying to you if I denied that I sometimes fall short of one or more of the ideals that I recounted. The biggest misgiving I had with this recognition is that from hereon, there would be less room for me to commit mistakes, the source of some of my most-enduring lessons. But then I could also have a better platform by which I could tell the current and forthcoming generations of Filipino film critics to prepare as best as they could, and thence to take a step or two further into what they think is unexplored, even controversial, territory. People will give you a once-over because you’re dealing with a medium that’s close to their hearts. Make sure you’re ready to give in return more than what they expect, not only because they might appreciate the effort, but because you owe yourself a useful lesson each time you send out your contribution to our now growing stock of cultural discourse.
Joel David is professor of Cultural Studies at Inha University and founding director of the University of the Philippines Film Institute. He maintains an archival blog at Amauteurish! He delivered this speech at the 2016 FACINE Gawad Lingap Sining Lecture held Oct.18 at the Diego Rivera Theater, City College of San Francisco. The FilAm is publishing excerpts with his permission.