“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)

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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.

Regular Film Posting (January 13-20)

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Brave (2012) & Aladdin (1992)

Been watching Disney films with Olivia for the past months. Instead of commenting on each, will probably just lay down a general observation for both.

Disney films, for better or for worse, has been great showcase of white American contemporary culture. Contemporary, being contemporary for each of the films’ release. There is of course a significant difference between representations of women on Brave and Aladdin. Brave being one with all the strongwoman archetype, and Aladdin as a film in-transition embracing a more liberal value with regards to choice. It is within this framework of historicization that we can understand Disney films older than these two. Just think that the older the films are, the more conservative white they are.

Their general weakness is their heavy dependence on cinema as representation. The same weakness of the more mainstream/populist Hollywood products in general. I think I’ve been addressing in here in several occasions the weakness of this dependence of representation: that it does not really address any kind of root problem. Especially in contemporary times where there’s an overabundance of representation that images flow with other excess in the semio-sphere.

American liberal/populist left seem to ride on this representative-driven aesthetics too much that they became the target audience. Regardless of actual audience drive, the flak caused by “misrepresentations” and “incorrectness” seem to shift capital flow from conservative to liberal spectrum. It is not that these are actually radical. We can go on a stretch that there’s really not much difference between them, that liberalism, being more rigid than conservative with their demands, is much the same as conservatives. Political correctness buy better social capital, still, in the era when culture industry is running on zombie mode.

In this ghoulish reality, where does critique place itself? In this constant rewind of history of representation, cultural critique becomes more and more a supplement to industrial entertainment complex.

 

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Salvage (2017)

At first, the glitches incorporated within the runtime of Salvage seem to be one of self-conscious effort to bridge between the logic of the camera-tool and the logic of the supernatural. But then again, there’s too much glitch that I begin to wonder whether if this would still work if these are actually salvaged footages. So, let’s drop the technological awareness.

This is the kind of a film Salvage is: one that has given up the more interesting aspect of its grand concept for the benefit of the other. Sure, there’s very interesting aswang sequences. There’s probably an excess in actually interesting aswang sequence for that matter. The first-person/found footage aesthetic work for the chase scenes: it gave us a sense of space and the entrapment the characters in the film found themselves in despite of the vastness of the forest. But that’s probably it, the majority of the film is a chase. If anything, it leaves out another important aspect in found footage film which is its sense of exploration. Weirdly enough, these are journalists, and most of the characters on screen doesn’t seem to be interested on doing anything.

Well, there’s very little to explore. Its probably because of its fascination for the supernatural get in the way for anything intellectual to intercede with anything. Sure, it works for its own good, and a lot of scenes are interesting, but it is left to that sense of interesting (interesting for whom, is of another question) other than something which is meant to be there in the frame to be something. The end of the film does not really add up to any other thought of being or becoming but rather, only piled up with its interesting-ness. The end sure, is interesting. The cast is interesting, the sub-cast is sure more interesting. But it’s nothing more than that.

 

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

John Carpenter’s macho-led satire films are perhaps a genre of its own. In Big Trouble in Little China, Kurt Russell is portrayed and will be remembered as this stereotypical white truck driver which has no other redeeming qualities even in a fistfight. In its own way, it provides a refreshing take on this position in power of the white image. Still, he poses as the protagonist, then again, what did he really do?

The film can only be taken for all its goodness: sloppy Chinese martial arts and magic, conflict which bridges hell from Earth, and an insurance-troubled truck driver. It is culturally inappropriate? Sure. For both sides. Big Trouble… take on all these stereotypes, made them hypervisible, to make them even less believable, to attain a different level of fiction.  After all, what else can you do with them?

This self-consciousness of fiction as final-product of cinema makes this film worth while. It’s telling you right from the start: this has magic, this has martial arts, this is a fictional world. It is less serious about its representation than it is for cinema.

Regular Film Posting (January 6-12)

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Sorry to Bother You (2018)

It is not hard to love this film. On one end, it functions as a (re)affirmation for everyone to see it about the value of human labor as an essential to generation of any sort of value. On another, it’s a real bait for Marxists, probably a more effective bait than Young Karl Marx (2017) or any other biopics about revolutionaries.

But the bait catches real good fish this time. Nothing fancy fanservice like in Young Karl Marx quoting classic passages as film lines. Sorry to Bother You has real understanding of the film medium. More than the technical prowess, the film shows great engagement with the film form. It chose this comedic route which would make one reflexive on whether s/he should laugh. It has this very uncomfortable sense of humor, which not in anyway offensive, but targets that sense of uncomfortability. It pushes a window for thinking, and is patient enough not to make quick cuts or jumping vibe.

The film’s intelligence doesn’t lie on what it’s done to itself, but what it’s doing to you. It forces you to acknowledge the things it acknowledges: from working class struggle, to the need of class solidarity, to the propagandistic function of cinema as its general function (a film theory which I’m very fond of and have been working towards for quite some time now). But propaganda, as most public relations people would have it, is not in the sense of force-feeding, but this “forcefulness” comes in a very persuasive way. Sorry to Bother You does not tell you things, it shows. Think of Medvedkin’s Happiness (1935). It is the only closest one I can think of who treats cinema in the same way of persuasion and discussion.

In a way, the title stands for the whole film. Cinema is a bother. And the film is kind enough to apologize in the first place, but it has to tell you something. It is a very modest thing to do for a film which, if put in a different context, boasts a lot. Gladly, this also comes with that same working class modesty where it is understanding that it will get uncomfortable, and it’s time and money, but we’re in this together.

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ABCD (1985)

What ABCD does is to take the educational format (something it probably took off from Sesame Street) and take all these things which seem to be out there either in questioning or mockery. It’s hard to distinguish what does it take and does not take seriously. The length of exposure might be one key, but looking at the whole work holistically, it seem to give equal weight to everything.

This seeming flatness is something which resonates with everything Roxlee has done. It’s this sort of hippie/new age attitude towards everything. That everything is connected. While it does mock Yoga in this film, it doesn’t really remove that hippie attitude. Especially with the soundtrack.

The image featured above is probably its best instance. Not only it does resonate the primary contradictory argument every mass organizer has been pointing out, it is also quite bold. This boldness is what made this film  stood out of everything Roxlee has done. Sure there’s an ample amount of bold statements on The Great Smoke, or on Tronong Puti, or even on the Juan Films, but never really as bold as this. Although, it might be just me reading it.

 

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Pulp Fiction (1994)

It’s probably been a decade since I last saw the film. Never been the greatest fan of it. But growing up sure changes things.

I began to appreciate how the writing in this film is so balanced. You get to remember everyone, especially those who got paid a lot. Vincent, Butch, Jules, Mia, Marcellus, Fabienne. Harvey Keitel seem to have this very small role, but sure he’s quite memorable as Mr. Wolf.

There seems to be a lot of thought placed in here than what I’ve perceived from before. In a sense, all of them characters seem to scream that it was written by a nerd. You get that, a lot. In the way they talk. It adds a lot when you consider the archetypes the characters are playing on.

And it’s weird that it’s taking on archetypes, like, it’s been refuted a decade before this film. And yet, here they are. And they work.

I think a lot has been said about its choice of form, and probably they are all true to it. I don’t know if anyone pointed out the archetype of things. It seems to me a proper entry into the postmodern, wherein it’s when it begins to sink in for most nostalgic that none of these simplicity in worldviews will ever be back. As a result, the film is quite a mess with its approach, subject, or just about everything. But Pulp Fiction being a mess that it is is probably the reason why it stands to this day. Especially now that seemingly woke goody-two-shoes will never take light the way its dialogs and representation goes. And they’re probably right about it: it’s that piece of insensitive mess that happens to get away with it in the grunge era. And that is because this film is grunge. And grunge is just a decoration in the era of Twenty-One Pilots and less of an aesthetic.

But think about how grunge worked: it’s punk’s transgression self-consciously sold out with pop rhythm (significantly slower than punk). It’s that capitalist hate sold on 7-11 shelves. No one really knows what one is to do with it. It kept kids jumping in the 90s. The adults are merely clueless. Pulp Fiction, in a way, functions the same.  It took out all of these 70s and 80s, and even earlier, archetypes of everything cinematically despicable. Made them chewable. An actually recommendable version of an Abel Ferrara late-80s / early-90s film. And that, I think is quite commendable. Unlike punk, it’s hard to make a Ferrara film recommendable to any uhhh, euro-loving cinephile. And Pulp Fiction‘s opportunism, for better or for worse, made itself quite an achievement. Like grunge.

Makes me think how impossible it is to do something transgressive these days.

Regular Film Posting (January 1-5)

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Insects (2018)

There are three living surrealists in cinema who are still actively working to this day. David Lynch seem to give up back in 2006 with Inland Empire to focus on his new age campaigns (which he calls transcendental meditation) but were able to make a come back in 2017 with a new season of Twin Peaks. Alejandro Jodorowsky is doing stuff again with his last two films being consistent with his works from his early days.

Insects is Jan Svankmajer’s second curtain call for himself. I remember him calling it quits 8 years ago with Surviving Life (within the same year as Bela Tarr’s retirement). This might not be a complete retirement for him, as I’ve read somewhere. Seems like he’s only doing what Hayao Miyazaki is doing: retirement from feature length films.

I can see the reason why. At the advent of entertainment explosion everywhere, cinema seem to be less and less of priority when it comes to pastimes. Arthouse filmmakers like Svankmajer, much as they get very privileged status in cinematic discourse, can’t seem to ensure economic stability without having to compromise with mainstream / Hollywood framework. And with Svankmajer, you really just can’t make his films compromise. But it is less because of an artist’s stubborn personality. His films are in a way, impossible to be mainstream.

Insects is that another stubborn film in its very core. It actualizes what surrealism originally is: a material which leaps from familiar to unfamiliar and back. Insects work as metacinema, but it is less concerned with commenting on its own. It’s meta-form makes a continuity between production and the product. Which makes it more of a surrealist film, than most of his works. Svankmajer made his strongest flex as a filmmaker: he’s letting us see what he’s doing and all the “faults” one might find is intentional as we can see him instructing the actors: “forget acting school”; “act without empathy.”

It’s weird seeing this film now. It seems to be something which you may see on a retrospective along with, say Last Year at Marienbad and 8 1/2. Its reflexivity has more of the modernist / futurist claim for artistic autonomy than it is of a postmodern musing. And Svankmajer is there to assure that.

“I told you,” is his last words in the film. Insects responded to that remark I had over a private conversation, that in cinemas, why materials tend to be self-reflexive is because we need to be constantly reminded that we are watching a film. It came from an insight that people seem to blur the line between the screen and real life due to the ubiquity and practical uses of screens. Svankmajer pushed this reminder further: “you’re seeing this from a screen which you do not have control of. You’re watching a film, my film.”

 

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Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

I’ve already said enough of this work. This would probably be a summing up.

Its form makes you need to take it seriously. Some took it as your regular Black Mirror material. You know, your favorite dose of cynicism and capitalist realism. The acceptable Thatcherite neoliberalism for the semi-woke to ignite your unconscious anti-working class sentiment (while still keeping it unconscious). You know, it doesn’t offer much for the future, and therefore it’s cool.

Bandersnatch works best if you do not take its content seriously, like most Black Mirror episodes. It’s a great exercise in cinematic expression, of course. Like the best of British TV, it moves like a film, conscious of the smaller screen size.

But none of the form is new. Bandersnatch is self-conscious of it. It presents these three layers of reappropriation of the “choose your own adventure” (CYOA) literature. Which its way of admitting that none of these are original.

Narrative-wise, it presents this interesting speculation that, what if, back in the 80s, there’s a CYOA novel which was done by a lunatic? It is in this aspect that a really good (possibly radical) element of the schizophrenic that Bandersnatch initially present. Only to suppress it, of course, in the guise of negative popular discourse surrounding schizophrenia. Reverting back to the very neurotic character of the control freak paranoid of control.

There’s several endings for the material. All of them are admittedly quite a disappointment. Like most Black Mirror endings, all of them are non-endings. Symptomatic most probably of its capitalist realism. Although the processes of getting to the ending are most enjoyable much as they are frustrating. The illusion of control is what makes it attractive. It is this auto-generation of pain-enjoyment that one can’t really dismiss Bandersnatch as mere hype. Or perhaps, this pain-enjoyment is the reason of its hype. Like in a Black Mirror ending, you’ll realize you’re not really in control. But then again, like all good ideological deployments in cultural products there’s the good old Zizekian formula: you actually know, but you still did it.

 

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Bird Box (2018)

What could possibly go wrong with a dystopian film? Nothing much. It’s already wrong. It’s dystopian already.

I really wanted to love the film. But it has this TV Movie feel that as if none of these were taken with really great consideration.

It has these bits of things which is good. Charlie’s character provided a really good metacritique of prominent trends in dystopian literature. But, I don’t think this critique is what the film needs. It probably needs more meta: why not a critique of dystopian literature itself?

Bird Box‘s dystopian apologism, however, provided an indirect counter argument with Jameson’s “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Essentially, the film answered just that: capitalism ended with the alien invasion. Only it ended with a positive feedback against the “creatures”: if the problem is seeing, we can just forget seeing completely. Looks like Saramago’s Blindness in reverse.

Again, like Black Mirror, it concluded with a non-ending. None of the home of the blind sanctuary helped resolved the real threat of the creatures. Then again, like most dystopian literature, there’s only two options provided: non-resistance or compromise.

 

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BLACKkKLANSMAN (2018)

BlacKKKlansman is clear with its intent. It does not really resolve a compromise between being with the police and the black liberation. Its conclusion made it sure.

What it highlights more is the solidarity produced by the Black Liberation not just within the movement, but even outside of it. In the end, it doesn’t really exclusively give priority with black liberation, as white-extremist reaction would have it. Although the form might make it seem like it.

It all boils down on whether the film can hold firm of its position transhistorically with the method it uses for now. It seems that the film tries to negotiate between the state disciplinary apparatus and black liberation while making us shift its focus on the infiltration mission. BlacKKKlansman seems to situate itself within the specificity of its time.

But then again, this is cinema. And what’s more, Hollywood cinema.

What it gets wrong, is that it falls bait with all of Trump’s racist drama. That it only stand within this specific wrong: what if Trump changed his mind? In the end, BlacKKKlansman will remain reactive. There’s a lot of potential in the material, but it falls within this very respect of the source that it did not get to fulfill its full potential. Then again, there goes its limit as a biopic.

 

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Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018)

There seems to be a lot of negative reaction against Michael Moore’s latest essay. Mostly coming from his supposedly “empty” ranting. Of course, he can be as liberal as he gets. But thanks to this recent development at least we can hear a disavowal of the classic AND the neoliberal framework in the frame of class struggle.

There’s a bit in the film wherein Moore addressed this necessity to reshift our focus on the working class instead of dividing our attention with identity politics. That identity politics — whether racial or gender politics — have indeed been reappropriated by bourgeoisie as their tactic in the dawn of the 21st century, to reassure votes, and therefore, have them remain in power. Something BlacKKKlansman seem to fleetingly address but only to present it as white discourse.

But Moore seems to be naive with his trust of the young ones trying to change Democrats. I’m not really sure though how to respond to this properly as a Maoist, since it seems to be a very valid tactic on my standpoint. But, what also needs to be addressed is that it should be transitory. Like how representative politics should have been transitory on any actually working democracy.

But then again, who knows?

As a political material, I think, there’s more to learn here than on earlier attempts of Moore to critique politics on his middle-aged naivete. This fruitful maturity is welcome. No matter how gimicky Moore has become, seems like his resolve in here goes beyond mere gimick: this is an actual document of Moore making an action. The image above becomes more of a symbolic act for a direct action against the perpetrators. He’s alone there. What more if there’s a crowd to flood the governor with the poisoned water he made Flint drink?

Two Ways of Alienation

on TBA’s I’m Drunk, I Love You

Mark Fisher, in 2009, stated: the pervading notion that the success of capitalism is set in-stone – granted by the failure of USSR to sustain its socialist-construction economy leading to its apparent fall back in 1989 (along with Fukuyama’s declaration of the end of history) –  continues to prevail and is now presenting itself as the only realistic political-economic system that there will be, despite the crisis of 2008. He calls this Capitalist Realism. Seeping through our daily lives posing as “nature of things,” is this notion that to get through the daily struggles, one must exchange one’s time and skill for a certain rate not necessarily for one’s own gain, but enough to sustain our needs and desire. This, in return, validates and enforces the following notion: that work is exhausting and draining and therefore, something to escape: who you are, then, is outside of what you do. Capitalist realism also enforces a certain kind of essentialism: since a person can’t be identified with his work, it must be in leisure time that one’s identity is to be known. In the little details, in their feelings, in the time of non-work, is where you are to be found.

In an earlier essay by Edel Garcellano (2001), he pointed out that what Fisher described as Capitalist realism necessarily governs the rules (of the game, of engagement, and even the lines of resistance) of what is being produced in literary works (and the dominant way of reading/interpreting texts) in this country after 1989: Capitalist Realism as the hermeneutics of our time. It is in the same lens of “an impossibility of thinking of any alternative” that I’m Drunk, I Love You was told. In the film, we follow a Film student, Dio (Paolo Avelino), and a social work and development student, Carson (Maja Salvador), on their getaway in La Union days before their graduation ceremonies. The film is strategically set at a time when we cannot observe who the characters say they are. We were never really given any plot points about them being the students. Never a visual cue, it requires a certain faith from the audience that they will believe that to whatever or whoever the characters say they identify with is true. The identification of the characters relied heavily on the verbal exchanges.

Not much is given about who the characters are in a material sense. We are not given an introduction of their concrete lives. The film was set up to avoid such. As mentioned earlier, the film focuses on a leisure time – a time when their labor is at rest. We see the characters merrily chatting and getting intoxicated. But this minor space in their lives is where the film situates its characters as their sole source of truth. We can only rely on what they are talking about on hints about their lives: their struggles, their concerns, their achievements or the lack of it. The film is not concerned about them being the kind of students they say they are. The film is more concerned about the feelings the characters may have on each other, and what would be the effect of these feelings on their connections. The film’s conflict revolves around Carson’s hesitance over whether or not she would tell Dio about her feelings towards him. Dio has the same dilemma over Pathy (Jasmin Curtis-Smith), an ex-partner who looks to fix their old relationship.

All of the information about the characters are relayed through and depended on their verbal exchanges. This narrative technique places a more natural sense of spectatorship: that you, as an audience-spectator, are a stranger. Although there are attempts to win your sympathy due to their concerns, the set-up remains as such that none of the larger portion of their lives are any of your business. The wall has been built between you and the film by not having seen the way they perform their supposed identities. But faith is being placed on you to react accordingly on every song, mood plays, and every hugot lines.

Alienation works in two ways in this film for the characters. First, is the alienation of their labor by privileging their leisure time over their labor-time. It has been established in the film that the relationship the characters had were founded not in the commonality of their relations in labor-production, but of their relations on commodities they could have access at and consume. They are oblivious of the fact that what they are as friends and companions are merely founded on items of which perceived exclusivity to access is the key: music gigs, local cuisine, corporate events posing as cultural festivals; relationships founded on safety nets, safe spaces and comfort food. Relationships which are founded from the exploits of their dead labor.

Second, is the characters’ alienation to their own mental faculties. It is interesting that its characters, especially Carson, tend to blurt out their kept wishes verbally as if their brains can no longer hold them. There are two scenes with Carson: first, when she woke up next to Dio, she mumbled about how beautiful a scene it was; second, was when before they leave La Union, Pathy went out for the loo, Carson took a few steps back and whispered her wish for Pathy not to come back too soon. There is probably a reason to this. There really might be too much stress in Carson’s brain that it cannot contain a moment’s wish and instantly displace it verbally. But since we are not given a chance to take a peek on her life, we can only assume things.

What I’m Drunk, I Love You succeeded the most is its conversion of the communicative feature of the cinematic medium into a merely transactional one: a complete privatization of the cinematic space of which none of the preceding events nor histories relating to the building-up of identities of the characters presented in the film really matter except those which are built on non-productive times (a feature not really exclusive with this film, but the intensity of the extension of the private space in this film is quite remarkable). In a scene where Jason Ty (Dominic Roco) plays a game with Carson to remember an act she did for Dio on each year they have known each other, what we are being presented is not much of a history which moves in progression. If anything passes as history at all, it is only that these recollections were supplied with given dates. A posture of empty empiricism, it is nothing but a quiz bee anyway.

I’m Drunk, I Love You is not a symptom, but a complete manifestation of the dominating notion of this celebratory neoliberal defeatism to capital. The formula is complete: rampant consumerism and commodification as a way of validating one’s self (remember that small conversation wherein they choose to talk about being featured at Young Star as a benchmark of a young artists’ success?) which results to a person’s alienation from labor (which denies us the concrete history of each character) and from his own psyche (paraphrasing Fisher, how does it become acceptable that Carson is this mentally dysfunctional?).

Being a Capitalist Realist film, I’m Drunk, I Love You is incapable of imagining an exit plan or an alternative from the whole system which governs Dio and Carson. As a result of its complex relation to the ruling economic and class structures, the film also tends to convert the Capitalist Realist un-imaginativeness to its own form. The end may seem to be open, but this is exactly is its limit of articulation: that it can’t imagine anything but an open end. The film’s open-endedness is not an invitation for any more speculation nor does not serve to be a nuanced one. It’s an ending which is just served “as it is”: as a sign, in case we forget that their lives are not our business.

 

References:

Fisher, Mark (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. London: Zero Books.

Garcellano, Edel (2001). Philippine Hermeneutics: Kingpins of the Hill. In Knife’s Edge: Selected Essays. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press.

Lovers in Dystopia

Notes on Nestor Abrogena’s Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa

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“The unique thing about Empire is that it has expanded its colonization over the whole of existence and over all that exists. It is not only that Capital has enlarged its human base, but it has also deepened the moorings of its jurisdiction. Better still, on the basis of a final disintegration of society and its subjects, Empire now intends to recreate an ethical fabric, of which the hipsters, with their modular neighborhoods, their modular media, codes, food, and ideas, are both the guinea pigs and the avant-garde.”
Tiqqun, This Is Not a Program

During the past days, commenting on filmmakers (and even critics) who comment negatively on the theoretical practice of film analysis, I mentioned through one of my social media accounts manners of which they perceive how film must be appreciated. They only but affirm Edel Garcellano’s comment on film industry’s cohorts who deem cinema as “an enterprise which needs all the compassion it must have – a baby that must be protected even from the harsh light of the sun” and thus wary of any criticism that uses other lenses than the formal knowledge of the medium. Nestor Abrogena’s Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa is a product of this cinema culture. In this film, we are faced with a seemingly new kind of cinema: a cinema with no theory and history. No theory in the sense that the frames the film conjure tries to resist any more symbolization than it already has: a posture of realism as Real. No history in the way it treats history as its object of nostalgia and nothing more. It begs to be taken as it is. While this isn’t exclusively the genesis of such practice in filmmaking, it is otherwise a candidate as its posterboy. Continue reading “Lovers in Dystopia”