“Cinema is not made of flesh”: an interview by Mara Valle

Around late November last year, a student by the name Mara Valle (MV) approached me for a written interview for her undergraduate (?) thesis. Her topic has something to do with the films directed by Olivia Lamasan and representation of women in her films. I asked for her permission if I can post it here. I revised some of the points I made, mainly due to clarity concerns.

The decision to post these answers to her questions came with the realization that the answers actually map the groundwork of my thoughts with regards to cinema. The content mainly revolves around my general theory of the function of cinema as determined by its historical practice as a medium of illusion. And that it is within this framework that we can understand what cinema is doing to us and its main contribution to history and our lives. These were all fleshed out by Valle’s seemingly basic questions which never really occurred to me to write at all. So, I’m using this opportunity to have these available here, at least as a point of personal reference.

I’d like to thank Mara Valle for reaching out and asking these questions.

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MV – What was your drive behind making film reviews?

– I’m not sure if you can call it drive. But I do it because I don’t know what else I can write. Or what else I can do. I write fiction from time to time. I also make films if time and resources permits.

But what I’m most comfortable with (with regards to my skill and knowledge scope, despite my handicap in grammar) is my capability to process my interaction with cinema and visual culture through criticism. There is an attempt of course, to broaden my interests. I’ve wrote a political pamphlet once for the Mass Organization I’m with (my work there is currently focused on production). Recently, I’m less interested with film in a manner that can’t consider myself as a cinephile anymore. But herein lies the contradiction that I’m already in the middle of it both as a creator and a commentator. The most I can do to validate my existence (and even with my “official” line of work since in the University, your tenure as a faculty gets more secured if you produce more “researches”) is to continue writing film reviews and criticism.

There is an advantage with not being interested with cinema while engaging with it: you see aspects of the medium which are mostly disregarded by those who proclaim that loves it. There are limits for people who love when they theorize and historicize: that they theorize and historicize to redeem that certain thing they love. This disinterest with cinema made my criticism more observant with what constitute its existence from the simplest to the most complex: from the illusory motion of frames to the military-industrial complex’s use of cinema as instrument of war.

 

MV – As a film critic who despite the fact that you are most likely to see different films almost every day, do you have a favorite movie? What is the movie’s title?

– As I’ve mentioned, recently, films do not interest me. So, as of late, I only see films whenever permitted. I do not watch much films lately. Probably before, I see different stuff almost every day but realizations from 2016 made me pause and take my time on consuming motion pictures. I still find Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle interesting enough to be called my favorite. But more as a narrative and as humanist critique of global capitalism than a movie. Well, formally, it is also compelling. Recently I’ve been going back to films I used to love and some of them I still like to some extent: Un Chien Andalou, Meshes of the Afternoon, Throw Away Your Books Rally in the Streets, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Inland Empire, Shaolin Soccer, Throw Down, Man with a Movie Camera.

 

MV – What is your basis when determining whether a film is good or bad?

– My criteria is more of whether the film is effective or not in providing an illusion. Cinema’s technology, basing with Muybridge’s motion studies in the late 19th century, reveals to us this very basic function of cinema: to provide illusions of any kind. Whether an illusion of motion, of time or of affect. A technology to replace the phantasmagoria, the magic lantern and even the vaudeville.

As a medium of illusion, cinema in the mid-20th century became what Louis Althusser called as Ideological State Apparatus (ISA). I highlight more on my reviews and criticism the role of cinema in propagating ideology than to concern myself on whether a film is “good” or “bad.” There really is no such thing as a good or bad film, but rather an effective or ineffective propaganda.

Of course there is ugly filmmaking, but even mishandled craft is still to be considered with its overall message. Say, for example, the overly “polished” single-take action scene from Buy Bust (2018). News is saying that they took them 52 takes to get that shot. When you see that scene, it still looks like a rehearsal video. If that’s the 52nd take, something must be wrong with the way it was handled. But the sequence being clumsy worked for its overall propaganda as a film which abhors both the action genre and the poor.

 

MV – When evaluating films, how do you handle if you feel you have a bias for or against the subject matter of a film. How do you manage to temper your review?

– At present, I am against any form of “subjectivation” (cinema sa an ISA means it constructs the audience as state’s subject) with regards to filmic representation. But cinema itself, at least its industrial part under bureaucrat capitalism, maintains subjectivation as its basic point: it shows what’s proper, it tells you what to buy, it tells you to subvert (but in a limited scope since industrial cinema can’t promote extreme subversions), but not in a very commanding way. Like how Slavoj Zizek say it: cinema teaches you how to desire.

So how do I handle being against cinema itself? I write criticism. My criticism is directed at two points: at the film and at film production under bureaucrat capitalism. I manage my temper by escalating it. There’s really no point of suppressing your anger over something that you should really be angry at. For example, Heneral Luna, is an effective propaganda on distributing semi-feudal ideas and liberal cynicism, since they appeal towards those who are disappointed over the incompetence of the Aquino administration but they opportunistically do so to promote their own degenerate and reactionary ideas. Isn’t that something that you should be angry about? Who are these people to tell us that we are our own enemy as if actual colonialism and imperialism never happened and is not happening?

 

MV – On your perspective, has digital cinema destroyed realism? Why?

– As mentioned earlier, cinema’s basic function is to provide illusions. Being mechanically called as “motion picture” in the twentieth century validates this function. Cinema works through a flowing assemblage of images which are being ran at a relatively fast speed. On the average industry standard, 24 frames per second. Having provided an illusion of motion through the projection of a set of images at a certain speed, realism will fail to take base. The first artist of cinema, Georges Melies, made cinema an art by incorporating with moving images not social realism, nor romanticism, but his practice of magic, which was his craft before he became fascinated with the cinema machine. Even the so-called “social realism” of the twentieth century, from Italian practice to the Filipino Melodrama, cannot even claim for a certain realism. Psychoanalytically speaking, the most cinema can depict is not a social real, but a social symbolic.

Cinema being a medium of representation, can never get hold of the real. It is an ideologue’s tool: most it can grasp is an idealism.

The digital medium, if anything, did not destroy realism, since it’s not even there in the first place. The fact that the use of digital medium has escalated from marginal use towards being the new convention means that it adds something quite positive in the realm of capitalist driven production of cinema. As such, it helped create more “realistic” scenes: isn’t it with digital cinema that the Bing Lao-Brillante Mendoza clique first deployed their “real time” “found story” aesthetics? Through the easier manipulation of digital images, it’s easier to make images as close to ‘real.’ Cinema, being born in the era of early cybernetics, guaranteed that the real that we know from the enlightenment – the humanist real – can never cross the realm of the reels. What is unfair is that cinema affects the real, as much as the developments in the mode of production and means of production affected it too. Cinema is not made of flesh. Its real is synthetic.

 

MV – What are your views on lead and supporting actresses in films that are being produced today? Personally, do you think women are still seen as Maria Clara or a damsel in distress in films? Do you think directors that produce films nowadays are gender sensitive?

I’ll be answering the three questions above in one go. From how I see it, the depiction of women in Philippine Cinema today borders between traditional and liberal, but both with conservative tendencies. Cinematic representation, at least in the industrial sense, do not really care much about the accuracy or political necessity of progressive stance if it do not guarantee profit. There are audiences for damsels in distress, there are audiences for depiction of independent women. It’s a matter of whose perversion is the studio catering with at a given moment.

The studio system in the 21st century rely a lot on speculation, like most venues of contemporary art market. If they feel the tendency of the time sway on traditional end, they’ll do it. Social media makes it easy to calibrate with what the consumers want. This is less of audience participation than expectation exploitation. There are no real modernists existing right now, at least among those who positively reinforce cinema and its production. Any demand for what ought to be represented in the cinema screens are probably western-white culture whims than actual intellectual demand. There are demands for gender sensitivity but not, say, abolition of conditions which enable violence against women and other genders which includes feudalism, bureaucrat capitalism and imperialism.

This non-addressing of social, historical and political conditions which enable violence is what makes such moves on cinema conservative. A conservation, in the literal sense, of existing status quo. That as long as these demands are met, further extortion and expropriation of surplus value from workers can be justified. By the end of the day, it’s consumerism forming ‘safe spaces’ out of cinema.

It’s this idea of forming a safe space out of cinema houses which exposes two things about the concept of such spaces. First, safe spaces only pose for a temporary remedy which do not really solve anything, as such it is only supposing a politics of comfort. Second, that such calls for safe spaces contributes more to the conditions which actually violates rights of women, children and other minorities, as it only address comfort and do not call for struggle.

Not really sure whether directors nowadays are gender sensitive. But I am highly suspicious of those who pose as one. Especially, if they’re looking at women, gays, lesbians, and other identities outside of the basic contradictions and only bank on personal ones. The personal isn’t necessarily political.

 

MV – In the following films:

  1. Minsan Minahal Kita
  2. In the Name of Love
  3. The Mistress
  4. Milan
  5. Starting Over Again
  6. Barcelona: A Love Untold

Do you think the women characters are portrayed as empowered or weak?

– From the titles you mentioned, I only remember four of them. The best that I can remember is In The Name of Love, and I don’t really recall the film having any care whether they depicted Cedes (Angel Locsin) as empowered or not. And I think that’s how it goes too with Milan and Starting Over Again. I vaguely remember The Mistress.

Though, they are not really portrayed as weak too. Remember, these are studio films. Most that they are concerned with are the affects these characters and films generated. As studio films, they are backed with the most reactionary, backward and profit-driven narrative decisions. There may have been attempts from writers to subvert their materials, but subversions has always been ineffective, even if those supposed subversions made it to the final cut of the film. Studio filmmaking practice never really endorse any kind of empowerment, most especially in a film produced in a semifeudal country like ours. There will always be dependence of any sort, on the status quo mostly. The films mentioned above, being produced by Star Cinema, under the corporate blanket of ABS CBN, promotes the notion of the family as the most important aspect of life. This ideological dispersion run on two sides: it promotes the value that maintains the stature of the ruling class as ruling class, and it ensures to generate more profit.

Here’s the thing: most of 21st century productions of Star Cinema tend to cater the female market more, some of which may have a notion of empowerment from time to time. This is because by the turn of the century, the buying power of single young-adult and middle aged women has significantly grown due to the global necessity for more corporate-skilled and outsourced workers. If Star Cinema will try to do more of these women empowerment themes on their films, this isn’t because they really do advocate for it. After all, they’re still one of those larger companies which practices non-regularization through their outsourcing of clerical workers from agencies, a lot of whose are women, hence disenfranchising working class women on their end. This is on top of their crazy hours of working days (from 12 hour to 30 hour shooting days) which is unfair, for both of their men and women workers, from their cinema production to their news production. Any campaign brought about by mainstream media for any sort of empowerment or advocacy, they do so with capitalistic opportunism. And I think this go along with all other filmmakers and not just Olivia Lamasan, who, after all, is just another corporate employee with a fat paycheck.

 

MV – Do you think the image of women characters in films perceive how people see them in real life?

– Sometime they hit it by the nail. Most especially on the earlier sequences of their films, when they establish women as troubled and busy despite of all of their other necessities in life. It is on their establishment of narrative conflict and resolution – when they are actually becoming stories – that their films start to become fictional.

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Materials for an Immature Film Aesthetics

on Black Sheep’s “Alone/Together” (2019)

alonetogether

 

Alone/Together places its cards less on the romance between Raf (Enrique Gil) and Tin (Liza Soberano), but on its own conception of what it means to be mature. This exploration of the concept of maturity was deployed in form as if it’s trying something new with very few plot-points that the film have. The film relies a lot with its narrative expositions told in a non-linear manner which intends to make whatever resolution less predictable. But what seemingly a novel attempt on narrative film was exacerbated by its own choices in film-form.

Essentially, the film only follows Tin: the one who is the most exposed in the film. Tin is an art studies graduate from a State University who works part-time as a guide at the National Museum where she get to know Raf, a medicine major from another university. There’s very little distance in the running time between this encounter and the exposition of the conflict. Their romantic relationship was only placed as a prologue to the main narrative, which happens 5 years later from this plot point.

Tin’s character embodies all the supposed expectations from and stereotypes of the graduates of the State University – that is, in the logic of the film, naïve idealists with high expectations of themselves. It is from this angle that the film tries to extract the conflict of her story: Tin got involved in a corruption case in the organization she was working on just after graduating. The condemnation from her colleagues became the source of her loss of confidence which made her quit her relationship with Raf. The event also became the catalyst for her to supposedly mature. The present narrative involves trying to patch up their relationship behind their respective current partner’s back.

As mentioned earlier, the story I retold above was expressed in the film in a non-linear manner. But the film seems to be concerned with other things than the story. At some point, it tries to call attention to its non-linearity itself (among other things that it tries to call attention to). It should have been a good opportunity for “experimentation,” but not in the case of Alone/Together. Its choice of storytelling technique is not unconventional: this choice has a history which makes it more of a corporate tradition than a challenge to conventions. Black Sheep’s film from last year, Exes Baggage, despite not having any substantial aesthetic or narrative ambitions, plays with the same non-linear narrative perhaps more successfully than Alone/Together.

From this point, Alone/Together looks like an uninterested attempt to recreate Exes Baggage’s form. Uninterested in the sense that it does the non-linear track of storytelling more as a chore – despite calling attention to it – that its intended unpredictability and complexity crumbles. This results for the film’s most important scenes to perform tautologically. Take, for example, Tin and Raf’s first secret date after meeting again at an award ceremony. Before going at the designated place where they are supposed to meet, a flash back of the confrontation between the foundation officials and Tin over the corruption case and her break up with Raf was shown. Back to the present, as Raf arrives and sits beside her, then Tin mouthed off everything that’s happened to her life. It is as if the film cannot even trust its own flashbacks that it needs Tin to repeat the scenes in her lines.

Of course, Raf needs some context. And what happened to Tin is the context he needs. However, Alone/Together is not really interested on making itself interesting. Its choice of cinematic form to expose this very crucial event is very straightforward, but not to the film’s benefit. It’s doing what it should be doing, again, as a chore: and like most chores, it was done with a sense of boredom.

Perhaps, Alone/Together’s boredom of its own task as a film – that is, to make its own cinematic techniques as sensually pleasing as possible – is the very attitude its supposed conflict between youthful idealism and “matured realism” has reached.  It’s a narrative of setbacks and what-ifs. And these what-ifs are trapped at a time in the past that the film is trying hard to get back to. From this set up, you can also get this sense of immaturity in the film’s aesthetic decisions. Despite having a veteran cinematographer like Neil Daza or acclaimed sound designer Michael Idioma on board, the film still looks and sounds as if it was done as an end-of-term class project. Something that you can get, for example, from that scene of the couples’ breakup where it was shot still and flat with a three-camera setup. The frame looks small for every action that it became less dramatic than it is awkward. Not unsettling, just plain awkward.

(Note: In the defense of class projects, I’m not saying that they are bad in general, but what I’m noting here is that the quality of work done in Alone/Together is not at par with what one would expect in an industrially produced work. Take the handling of the scenes in Exes Baggage for example, which I think, was done in similar, if not, smaller production scale than this film, but has produced more impressive results, at least in mise en scene. If you try to get a look at the specific scene I mentioned above, it’s not even a “subversive” or “poetic” take, it just looks as if it was done lazily which produced its awkwardness. Whether or not this retrogression of quality in industrial film production scale is a symptom of something is of another issue.)

If the film was done intelligent enough to be self-conscious of its “immaturity”, editing should have followed through and intentionally “missed” at some point. But the film’s editing seem to be the only one which at least had some consideration to be “mature” with its commitment to non-linear storytelling. This is where the form reached its penultimate conflict which it never gets to resolve: the uncompromising editing was done with heavily mishandled frames and sounds.

And then, there’s the narrative content. The non-linear storytelling, in practice, demands multiple complicated plots, which most of the time comes from multiple sources. Alone/Together, unfortunately, only had a unilateral source of plot which makes its choice of storytelling (that is to say, the film itself) ineffective in its delivery. This unilaterality, of course, points to Tin as the sole bearer of truth and the supposed subject of audience empathy. However, the film exerts very little effort to justify this choice. The film, like Tin, seem to lack the courage to commit to its own stand. In the end, during the confrontation between Raf and Tin in one of the last scenes which was set in New York, the two presents their own case on why one is either a coward or brave. They never really even tried to resolve this. After all there really isn’t any contradiction. Raf’s notion of cowardice (that Tin never really tried to do the right thing when the situation arose) and Tin’s notion of courage (that is, the courage to admit her own cowardice) are on the same side of the coin. The film is just too coward to admit that it is.

This cowardice, after all, is also its exercise in boredom. Arguing and proving a point is tiring, like most struggles. While it is just to empathize with what Tin went through, the film’s careless handling of the material, which never commit to any kind of resolution whether in form or content, makes it hard to even take Tin’s case seriously. Of course, except with the non-linear storytelling, which again, never really helped to give any kind of justice to Tin’s case. It is not because Tin’s case isn’t a grave matter, but the film’s choice of form do not seem to take its own material seriously.

These attempts for novelty, exacerbated by its formal cowardice, boredom and inattentiveness, gave way to the film narrative’s own retrogression. The conclusion Alone/Together set for itself brings Tin into a certain limbo of trying to regain one’s self without any form of salvation. She is, after all, admittedly a coward to even regain even her own innocence. She proceeded bearing the unnecessary guilt which became her own oedipal trap: that is, an entrapment in victimization and its reproduction. Since the film do not really take Tin’s salvage seriously, at the very least, as a piece of tokenism, you may want focus on the other things it would like to present. The idealized culture of the State University being featured, its “progressive” instructors with their “subversive” lectures, the flash protests, the festivities, and the sceneries which the film so eagerly want to sell more than it tries to make sense of itself.

Overhauling Identity (part 0)

I’ve been going back and forth to this problem of identity. At first, there seem to be a real issue concerning this problem: that indeed, there are unrests seemingly caused by conflicts brought about by differences on this category of identity. Francis Fukuyama himself, on his latest book, framed contemporary political and economic problems in light of identity politics, as if playing with it several years belated than his liberal colleagues. This isn’t to say that Fukuyama has forgotten class conflict, although he still abide by his belief that these conflicts are caused by certain search of an inner entity, an “inner sense of dignity [which] seeks recognition,” which makes his claims less intelligible than it is readable.

In recent times, some people from the left are taking into consideration whether to abandon identity politics as it has become a means for liberal opportunism. Identity politics, it is said in an article from In the Defense of Marxism, has “allowed a convenient way to deserting the class struggle and abandoning socialism, whilst continuing to pay lip service to “progressive causes”. “ Fukuyama has noted this shift from the left around the 70s to identity politics, but never really noted about this destructive implication within the left itself (of course, he’s never really concerned about it).

The case between American/Liberal-“left” discourse of intersectional identity politics and Fukuyama’s view of inner sense of dignity are two sides of the same coin: that is, both of a view of a certain fixity in the category of identity. A lot is at stake here: there are legitimate concerns of marginalized sectors and ethnic communities of socio-economic neglect from the state, ongoing repression of othered genders, disputes over national territories. But, if one is to inquire into the matter, it seems to be unreasonable that neglect, repression and disputes are caused by this sense of othering. Some would probably see it that way: that it is indeed unreasonable.

But no one seems to interrogate to the essence of this unreasonability itself. Critique of discrimination based on identity tend to become weak precisely because of this dismissal of discriminatory attitude as merely unreasonable or “incompatible” with the times (“it’s already 2019 and you’re still thinking that way”) become itself a mere reflection of the same dismissive attitude of conservatives. These critique most of the time come from affective response and emotional reactions, which, by themselves, left unchecked self-consciously, tend to become unreasonable too. No one seem to look into the very essence of this perceived unreasonability which stem from either a defense or dismissal of identity politics.

Postcolonial and cultural theory, extending their object of studies to gender, race, ethnicity and nationality, has been tools used throughout the years to try to make sense of these phenomena. Their general thesis is that these came mostly as a result of power relations generated by the history of colonization and patriarchal rule. While this may prove to shed some light over the matter of identity problem, contemporary appropriators of postcolonial and cultural theory tend to mythicize this notion of power relations only to generate an unreasonable discriminatory attitude towards anyone who can be associated with their “reactionary enemies.” Which, again, fall victim to the same kind of attitude and method as their supposed enemies.

This recoil towards the flip side of conservativism, the reactionary and irresponsible promotion of openness and tolerance, creates a feedback loop to the same process. Liberal intersectionalism — this unproblematic embracing of identity as a fixed category and hence, requiring tolerance – recently being catered too by a lot of young leftists from the urban centers, also opens itself to the tolerance of neoliberal capitalist logic: they too, are a target market. As these theories and methods do not by itself think of a way out due to their fixation to the fixity identity, it also fail to provide an actual alternative to the situation which drive them to critique in the first place.

To follow through the outline of the problem, this series of essays will try to find a way to overhaul this general notion of identity. I argue in this essay, and for the essays to come, not a dismissal of identity or identity politics, but a reconfiguration of identity and identity politics towards a more reasonable understanding of itself. This set of essays will quite obviously borrow from the functionalist method used by Reza Negarestani in his book, Intelligence and Spirit, wherein he referred to the “essence” or “spirit” of things (geist) and concepts not as a metaphysical entity, but the way things work. We’re looking at identity and identity politics on their supposed and ideal function for us to get a general understanding of how it should be, and for us to recognize what it ought to be, and what can we do to reconfigure it. The search for the geist will then be recaptured back to Mao Tse-tung thought, where we’re making sense of these functions in the light of social practices, and that the development and progress of these functions can only happen through active struggle. And these practices, for Mao, do not just involve participation in economic production, but everything which can be deemed as sensibly productive activities and struggles, which, for Negarestani, are necessarily public or deprivatized for them to be considered as part of general intelligence and intelligibilities.

For this goal of understanding identity, on the next iteration of this series, we’re starting with what’s been assumed already by some skeptics of thinking: that identity is a construct, but were looking at it in a materialist way. Identity, being a construction, is necessarily a product of history, and by being a product of history, is also a subject of either retention or revision. As a category, identity has its own set of criterion of which it identifies itself. These set of criterion changes as the condition which enabled the production those set of criterion change. The criteria and changes of identity can be traced through the changes also of the social practices which in the first place contain the site, materials and methods to which identities are constructed.

Once we have established the materials necessary to produce an identity, the next set of essays will focus on the problems generated by the construction of identities. It is on these parts that we’re going to engage with the perceived “unreasonability” of discrimination, to make sense of these unreasonabilities, and to provide a more rational insight on the real implications and violence resulting from these unreasonabilities. In a way, the critique of discrimination will undergo a process of negation via criticism-self-criticism, which will force it to face these so-called unreasonabilities to make them reasonable. The reason for this is to provide this critique its correct weapon to address identity discrimination without falling into the same rules of what it tries to critique.

The last part will look into the liberal solution for identity discrimination: the irresponsible promotion of openness and tolerance. This critique aims to expose how liberal intersectionality and tolerance do not lead toward any actual unity, but rather, it settles for tolerating unrest also without any suggestion of struggle. This irresponsibility stem from its own aim for stasis: that tolerance makes way for a smooth flow of capitalist desires. As liberal openness and tolerance forgoes the value of struggle, it also hampers the capability of man to reconfigure himself and his history, as what is actually being promoted with openness and tolerance is also an openness and tolerance to the current, that any sort of futuristic imagination – of leaving out dominating and marginalized identities of the current into the dustbin of history for actual progress of humanity; any sort of progressive and constructive activity outside the framework of the present – has become a threat.

To overhaul identity is to reconfigure the understanding of ourselves from the multiple facet of stasis to a unifying march towards history. It is only through this overhaul that actual diversity – the autonomous uprising of polyphony – can happen. That it is possible, because we’re beginning to acknowledge the non-fixity of this category: the acknowledgement of identity as synthetic. And with this acknowledgement, we were now able to control it, and change it in any way we see fit for our benefit.