Wednesday, December 3, 2008

MOVIES, CRITICS, AND THE BAKYA CROWD

Cover of the VHS of Orapronobis,
released in France as Les Insoumis

and in the U.S. as Fight for Us

The recent Active Vista film festival--at Robinsons Galleria IndieSine, from November 26 to December 2, 2008--had, as opening film, Lino Brocka’s Orapronobis (a.k.a. Les Insoumis, a.k.a. Fight for Us) and, as one of the closing films, Signos, a 40-minute documentary made by a Concerned Artists of the Philippines team led by Mike de Leon. As the screenwriter of Orapronobis, and as a member of the team that worked on Signos, I must confess that I was pretty flattered to have served as some kind of parenthesis for the filmfest.

After the Orapronobis screening, I got introduced to an Australian writer and occasional filmmaker named Andrew Leavold, who’s doing--believe it--a documentary called The Search for Weng Weng. Yup, it’s about the late Weng Weng, the diminutive actor who in the 1980s played a Pinoy James Bond code-named Agent 3 1/2, Agent 00, and Agent 007 1/2 in various movies. Check out Andrew’s fantastic blog: <http://andrewleavold.blogspot.com/>.

Newspaper ad of a 1981 Weng Weng movie,
from the Video 48 website:

http://video48.blogspot.com/search/label/WENG-WENG

Hearing Andrew talk about his unbelievable love affair with Pinoy B movies reminded me of an old article I had written back in the late 1970s, so I dug it up and dusted it off and sent him a copy. Here it is.


Movies, Critics, and the Bakya Crowd
by Jose F. Lacaba

(From AAP Liham, Vol. 3 No. 4, March 1979. AAP is the Art Association of the Philippines.)


The term bakya crowd was coined back in the Fifties by a prestigious director to describe the mass audience which, he felt, was incapable of appreciating the merits of his award-winning films. These days we can’t use the term with the same cavalier attitude that attended its coining. Largely as a result of current attacks on elitism, we can no longer contemptuously dismiss that large chunk of the population encompassed by the term bakya crowd; and the word bakya itself, like indio before it, is fast becoming a badge of honor in certain circles.

Still, the opprobrium once attached to the term has not been entirely eradicated. Traces of it may be detected, for instance, in a movie critic’s recent witticism: “There’s no such thing as a bakya crowd. There are only bakya producers.”

That the term bakya in its extended meaning has both pejorative and acceptable connotations indicates the ambivalence of our attitude toward the crowd called bakya. When you come right down to it, bakya crowd is synonymous with masa, and nowadays everybody pays lip service to the masses. We cannot afford to look down upon them as a social class or a political force. But the masses as patrons of culture? The idea seems preposterous.

We may profess to find some of the forms and aspects of mass culture charming, particularly if, as in the case of the moro-moro and the sinakulo, these are virtually extinct or are threatened with extinction. But confronted by forms of mass culture that are alive and current--radio soap operas, television variety shows, komiks, the general run of Tagalog movies--we are bewildered and appalled.

Our attitude toward Tagalog movies is instructive.

The local movie industry, where the term bakya crowd originated, classifies Tagalog movies into two major categories. In the lingo of the industry, they are either commercial (also known as bakya) or hindi commercial (also known as pang-FAMAS).

The commercial movie is anything aimed frankly at the box office. The producer’s intention here is primarily to make a profit, and though the intention does not always succeed, it dictates what type of movie is to be made, how it is to be made, who its stars will be, etc. For this reason, the commercial movie prefers tried-and-true formulas to innovation and experiment, sticks to genres or follows trends proven to have box-office pull, and generally provides escapist entertainment.

The noncommercial movie--sometimes referred to as prestige picture, quality picture, or art film--has aims more ambitious than mere profit and more serious than mere entertainment. Those who indulge intermittently in its production are either incurable romantics with noble intentions and boundless optimism, or thoughtful veterans who have made a lot of money on commercial flicks and feel it’s time to try for a FAMAS statuette or two.

A few films that fall under this category have turned out to be sleepers--that is, unexpected commercial successes. Lino Brocka’s Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang is a notable example. But such movies are rare, very rare, exceptions. As a rule the noncommercial movie is box-office poison, however much it may blow the minds of critics.


The Popular Nerve

There’s a joke in local movie circles that it’s a bad thing to be praised by the critics. A rave review is supposed to spell death at the box office. The joke smells of sour grapes, and the industry obviously does not take it seriously. The truth is that producers are dimly aware of both the potential and the actual power of critics, as indicated by the fact that they occasionally threaten to withdraw movie ads when reviews get too nasty, and liberally quote the critics in those same movie ads when the reviews happen to be favorable.

Still, there’s a bit of truth in the joke. Those of us who care about the “art of film” and are at the same time interested in Filipino movies do tend to favor the noncommercial variety. The movies made expressly for the mass audience usually leave us cold--or even arouse the killer instinct in us, so that we feel an urge to tear those movies to pieces and hold up to ridicule the people who have inflicted such banalities on us.

Our reaction is understandable. Though commercial Tagalog movies have been made that exhibit a modicum of sense and a measure of technical finesse, the bulk of this particular commodity is indeed so shoddy, so inept of craftsmanship and inane of content, that we are justified in our contempt.

But our reaction reveals as much about ourselves as it does about the movies we react against. It is, in part, a reflection of the extent of our alienation from the mass of Filipinos who make up the bakya crowd. We cannot appreciate mass culture, we cannot even view it with sympathy and understanding, because we have been conditioned--by our social origins, our educational background, our cultural orientation--to regard as inane and inept whatever does not measure up to our exalted notions of art and culture.

This is particularly true of the movies. As a result of ongoing re-evaluations in the field of drama, for instance, and also because of the influence of the tourist industry, we have learned to regard with equanimity the presence of Castilian knights and Roman centurions in folk theater. We can even accept the anachronism and unintended comedy of a sinakulo Christ wearing a wrist watch and rubber shoes on his way to Calvary. But Filipino cowboys and samurais on our movie screens! The very idea insults our intelligence.

Part of the reason for this may be that film is a 20th-century medium, and we expect more from it than from folk theater. But we tend to forget that the social and historical conditions that gave rise to Philippine folk theater still exist in the country in this seventh decade of the 20th century. This explains why the creators and patrons of folk theater are still very much around, dictating the shape and content not only of vanishing theatrical forms but also of the very much alive “art form of the 20th century.” Thus, the peasant mind, still befogged by feudal miasma, makes possible the anting-anting movies of Ramon Revilla.

The point here is that there is a bakya crowd--or rather, since the term can be both offensive and misleading, there is a mass audience out there whose tastes and cultural level are different from ours, whose very conception of culture does not coincide with ours.

In other words, the existence and proliferation of bakya movies is not solely the fault of bakya producers, although they certainly bear a great part of the blame. The bakya movie exists because there is an audience for it, because it is popular. And it is popular because it provides escapist entertainment, besides allowing moviegoers to forget the oppressiveness of daily living, besides helping to take their minds off inflation and poverty and the immediate problems that beset them, and also--paradoxical as this may seem--because it touches something vital in the popular nerve.


The Formalist Tradition

In his essay “An Approach to the Filipino Film,” literary and film critic Bienvenido Lumbera points out that a major concern of the film student in evaluating a Filipino movie should be “the centrality of content.”

Elaborating on this point, Lumbera writes: “What does the film say about man in a society in ferment? How does it view the problems that confront man in his struggle against nature and men who seek to exploit him? This is not to insist that every film make a philosophical statement or engage in social analysis. This is simply to remind the directors that filmmaking in an underdeveloped country should be primarily a way of saying, not making magic with picture machines.”

Those of us who are interested in Filipino films tend to forget the point raised by Lumbera. We have been nurtured in the formalist tradition of the New Criticism in literature, and we carry our biases into our study of the movies. Just as we are inclined to scrutinize a poem or novel textually, without reference to its social and historical context, so too we analyze a movie in terms of how it is constructed (“breathtaking photography,” “expert editing,” etc.) instead of what it is saying.

When we do pay attention to content, we labor under the misconception that only the good artistic movie has something to say--or at least something to say that deserves consideration. We think that the commercial movie, and especially the badly made commercial movie, has nothing to say, or that what it has to say is beneath contempt.

To the mass audience, the opposite is true. Serious films like Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Nunal sa Tubig, though made with intelligence and care, may make no sense to the bakya crowd. This is so not only because these movies deal with subject matter and use techniques that are new and unfamiliar in Tagalog movies, but also because the problems they tackle are of no interest to the mass of Filipinos living today. Alienation, dehumanization, existential despair, and the absurdity of the human condition may loom large in the minds of middle-class intellectuals, but these could well be of little concern to the uprooted provincianos or the coastal villagers who are ostensibly the subjects of these films.

On the other hand, out-and-out commercial movies may have something vital and basic to say to the mass audience--and in terms it can easily grasp. The standard Fernando Poe Jr. movie, for instance, deals with themes that appeal to the popular imagination and express certain popular aspirations. It is often set in some never-never land with no basis in history or present reality, a fact that turns off the critics; yet this setting, no more fantastic than the symbolic Albania of Florante at Laura, does not make the thesis of the typical Poe movie any less valid.

The Poe character is usually a patient, long-suffering individual who, when his patience has been stretched to the limit by the violence of his oppressors, is not averse to using fists and guns to defend or avenge himself. It is a character the Filipino peasant, likewise blessed with legendary patience, may find easier to identify with than the extremely simple-minded peasant anti-hero of Ganito Kami Noon... Paano Kayo Ngayon?

The war epics that used to be a Poe staple are likewise closer in spirit to the folk conception of wartime history than the critically acclaimed Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos. The guerrillas in the Poe epics were often too superheroic to be credible, but they did not depart from the popular image of the guerrilla as a freedom fighter resisting foreign invasion. In Tatlong Taon, the guerrillas are either horrifying grotesques or naive USAFFE types fighting America’s war in the Pacific, and the only Japanese we see is an officer who, though he rapes a village girl, still comes out looking as cute and lovable as Christopher de Leon. No doubt there were bad Filipino guerrillas and good Japanese officers during the war, but to tip the balance in favor of the latter, as Tatlong Taon unwittingly does, goes against the popular grain.


The Human Condition

One strong quality of the Poe character is that he is incapable of wallowing in despair. He may be assailed by doubts, but in the end he always gets over his doubts and goes into action. Unlike the Rafael Roco Jr. character in Lunes, Martes, Miyerkules, Huwebes, Biyernes, Sabado, Linggo, who ends up accepting things as they are, the Poe character believes in the necessity of struggle, operating on the assumption that the human condition presents much to protest against but nothing to despair about. Thus, the Poe movie always ends on a note of hope. Perhaps the hope is illusory, and then again, perhaps it could be a stimulant for the downtrodden.

This extended disquisition on the Poe movie is not meant to be a denigration of films like Ganito, Tatlong Taon, or Lunes. Nor is this an argument for swallowing--hook, line, and sinker--the phenomenon of mass culture as it exists today. We need not justify what is blatantly opportunistic and exploitative in commercial movies.

What we are driving at here is simply that commercial movies made for the bakya crowd, for the mass audience, are as deserving of serious study as the works of noncommercial film artists. They are as worthy of critical exploration as the films we hail as masterpieces.

As movie critic Pauline Kael notes in her essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” whether a movie is good or bad is sometimes of less interest than why so many people respond to it the way they do.

“Sometimes,” Kael writes, “bad movies are more important than good ones just because of those unresolved elements that make them such a mess. They may get something going on around us that the moviemakers felt or shared and expressed in a confused way. Rebel without a Cause was a pretty terrible movie but it reflected (and possibly caused) more cultural changes than many a good one. And conceivably it’s part of the function of a movie critic to know and indicate the difference between a bad movie that doesn’t much matter because it’s so much like other bad movies and a bad movie that matters (like The Chase or The Wild Ones) because it affects people strongly in new, different ways. And if it is said that this is sociology, not aesthetics, the answer is that an aesthetician who gave his time to criticism of current movies would have to be an awful fool. Movie criticism to be of any use whatever must go beyond formal analysis.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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