Philippine mainstream cinema: time to innovate

I love Ambeth Ocampo‘s articles in The Philippine Inquirer.  He always has something new to tell out of the old stories.  It doesn’t take one 15 minutes to read one of his articles but these few minutes impart valuable and well digested knowledge which in monetary terms is worth far more than the cost of the newspaper.  Or, the tuition for one semester of history class.  I love that he makes his expertise accessible to the public (or at least the newspaper reading public).

Recently he wrote about the secret affair of Rizal and Leonor Rivera and I thought, goodness, this is movie script material!  It’s another new facet of Rizal.  The persons he was close to in his lifetime.  A couple of the lady’s letters to Rizal – how was it that people of long ago wrote charming letters and endearments (“Esteemed friend/Jose,” “Command at your pleasure your true servant who kisses your hand”) – were featured in the article but according to Ocampo, there are no surviving records of Rizal’s letters which Rivera responded to.  And he posed the question, “why was Leonor worried about their relationship being made known or discovered by others?”  It got my imagination working.  Perhaps there are script writers on it too.

My point is, Philippine mainstream cinema, at least what I’m seeing in my generation,  is too safe and therefore predictable in its choice of productions. An online essay by a DLSU faculty supports this when it says

we see film makers copying and imitating Hollywood films and creating “imagined communities” for the perceived or groomed passive audiences. The results are shallow, shrewd, deceptive, linear, predictable films. Second, we see Filipino audiences fascinated with the big stars, lured and simply derivatives of the Hollywood cinema and the star system. This problematic situation has been happening from the early 1960s to the present. And the situation is getting worse with the passing and retirement of some of the better film makers in the country.

In a similar vein, a dissertation on Philippine cinema available online comes up with the same critique (from within the industry itself)

When asked about the current state of Philippine cinema, a majority of the respondents said that it is either “comatose”, “dying”, “dead”, or as filmmaker Gil Portes said, “between 110 years and death” (Portes interview, 2006). These pessimistic views of current Philippine cinema arise for two major reasons: (1) the decline in viewership due to competition from Hollywood films, film piracy, the heavy taxation imposed on films, and (2) the lack of ‘quality’ films that  rival or approximate those produced during the two periods of the so-called Golden Age of Cinema (1950-59; 1976-86).

One wonders to whom Cherie Gil’s character, Lavinia, was actually addressing her line “you’re nothing but a second-rate, trying-hard copycat!

On the above-cited reason concerning the competition from Hollywood films, I think that it is not the competition or Hollywood films per se (because competition is always good, it keeps you on your toes) but rather it has to do with quality.  By quality, I mean (1) the values and images that compel audiences to watch the movie, and (2) the cinematic technical quality of the production.

Concerning the first, Philippine cinema continues to target the masses as its primary audience thereby neglecting the middle class which has grown since the 80s and still growing.  In terms of values, tastes and imagined portrayals of characters, there is an ocean of difference between the masses and the middle class.  The latter has and continues to attain levels of sophistication – leveling up with global communities’ – that the masses have not.  The non-stop shouting, shrieking and bullet-throwing that typify the movies here have lost their hold on middle class audiences.  They have become abominable to the senses.  And so they turn to movies – stories and portrayals – close to their value sets.

In addition, scripts tend to stick to the same old angle of the story.  Take Rizal.  Writers and producers should be fearless in exploring his life; where they are limited by recorded history, they could use their imagination to explore  new and different angles and facets of a story.    Mainstream actors, for their part, should get into the skin of their characters and explore, explore, explore.  There is nothing so disappointing and confusing to audiences as actors playing themselves in their characters.

The second reason, which is the cinematic quality of film production, is something that has plagued the industry for some time already.  The production houses have shown that when they want to they could back film productions with financing these deserve.  This should be the rule in the industry rather than the exception.  Nothing is also as disappointing as a movie not coming up to the promises of its marketing people.  Take the Enteng Kabisote franchise, for one.  The fake-ness of the production makes me weep.  Or laugh which has nothing to do with the fact that the movie is a comedy.  Because I know I could easily replace this with another DVD which is a hundred times better.  And foreign.  The masses probably will stay and be amused, oblivious to it all.  But this cannot be expected from the middle class audience.  Naturally.

Cito Beltran, a columnist at The Philippine Star, wrote recently about innovation; that, it is the business of business entities to innovate.  Or perish.  The film industry is a business enterprise.  Innovation is necessary to its continuity and relevance.  The indie film production has shown the way toward innovation.  For taking the necessary risks and out of the box thinking, it won more than a few international citations and awards.  It is time mainstream Philippine cinema catch on.

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