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Hello, random earthling!

My name is Alaine.

I am currently a film graduate student and an aspiring filmmaker.

This blog was first dedicated for my papers in Film 270: Advanced Film Theory and Criticism (2020).

Now, it is dedicated for my Film 299 Research Updates (2021).

If you so randomly find yourself getting lost in this space, feel free to explore my thoughts. There’s plenty of room in this alienated world.

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Film 270 Post

Week 12: A Time to Talk

In 1997, the famous Ms. Universe pageant asked, then candidate, Sushmita Sen a question that would trigger discussion all over the world. She was asked, “What is the essence of a woman?” To this, she replied,

“Just being a woman is God’s gift. The origin of a child is a mother, a woman. She shows a man what sharing, caring, and loving is all about. That is the essence of a woman.”

(Sen, 1997)

Although her answer highlighted the caring and nurturing qualities of a woman, it also put a spotlight on motherhood. And, while the whole world was discussing what should be the answer to this question, most were agreeing that to be able to give birth or to mother a child is the essence of being a woman. This, in itself, is troublesome because it puts aside women who are unable to produce children because of medical reasons. It also disregards women who choose not to have children, or could not adopt, or could not afford surrogacy, and so much more. Pinpointing the essence of a woman to just her ability to reproduce is locking her purpose into a society-given task which, if she fails to do it, would decrease or even eliminate her value as a person. Sen’s answer, as heartfelt as it is, highlighted “sharing, caring, and loving” as women’s traits, despite the fact that these qualities should be present in all types of people. As a matter of fact, in any way one looks at the question, there could never be a correct answer because the question, itself, is what is problematic. To look for the essence of a particular person is to basically ask what differentiates her/him from anyone else. It’s a question of identity, and it’s troublesome because it cages and reduces that person into a certain trait or quality. It is a question that does not seek to explain, but rather seeks to impose a definition, as a means of exerting power. The fact that this question was asked to a woman, in the most prestigious pageant in the world where she is supposed to reign, just shows how the world belittles a woman’s glory and tries in any way possible to take her away from her rightful pedestal. I, for one, would argue that the essence of a person lies in their sense of identity and the strength and determination that goes with assuming this identity. But with a world so obsessed with defining someone’s identity, this “identity” becomes a task, an element to be proven and questioned, rather than what one ought to live by. For people to live out their respective identities, they must face the challenge of getting out of society’s definition of them. This is exactly the unnecessary challenge imposed on members of the community, most particularly on the LGBTQ+ community.

With the rise of the LGBTQ+ empowerment, the world is determined to better understand their identity, but in the process of doing so, we are once again falling into the pithole of putting stereotypes. These stereotypes, not only serve as limiting entities, but rather they instill certain impressions on these groups of people in order to generate further hatred and avoidance geared towards that which they do not understand. It is only common, after all, to fear what one does not understand. 

“It is the ideological function of the lesbian body to warn the ‘normal’ woman about the dangers of undoing or rejecting her own bodily socialization. This is why the culture points with most hypocritical concern at the mannish lesbian, the butch lesbian, while deliberately ignoring the femme lesbian, the woman whose body in no way presents itself to the straight world as different and deviant.”

(Creed, p. 101, 1995)

The lesbian community, for example, have been stereotyped for being the “tomboy” persona, a woman who typically dressed and acted like a man out of her desire to be a man. This stereotype puts the “essence” of the community in the way they dress and behave. This also completely sets aside lesbians who are society’s definition of “feminine” in action and appearance. In the context of film, along with the butch lesbian is typically the comedic gay character, who acts “feminine” and dresses in women’s clothing. They are also typically shown in beauty parlors, as well as comedy bars. Do not get me wrong, some of these stereotypes are truthful. There are such people as butch lesbians and comedic gays in parlors, but there is an outrage for such representation in the media because it limits people’s image of them to just those. Such images are what people get used to, and when they end up being shown something else, they react negatively and shocked because, to them, what they are seeing is not anymore Queer Cinema, but misrepresented people who are “bad” examples. The danger is in idealizing a kind of queer because it marginalizes and, therefore oppresses, everyone else outside that limited definition.

 “…the politics of representation is still the method of choice in the popular gay press, where it has devolved into movie-star interviews that let us know which actors are out of the closet, and brief film reviews that help us to locate “positive” or “liberating” images of gay people.”

(Hanson, p.6, 1999)

The world is so curious and invested in people coming out of the closet. Whenever a celebrity does it, it’s always all over the news. A person’s sexuality is always a big deal to the point that people are bombarded with questions the minute there is a speculation about their sexuality. Someone’s sexuality is none of anybody’s business, whether the person chooses to hide it or not. It should be celebrated but it is not for another person to pry on. The dream is to live in a society where people don’t have to come out anymore because being queer is normal. Technically speaking, “coming out” is at the service of the heterosexual, as much as it is a celebration of the identity of the person coming out. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where sexuality is a huge part of gossip culture because to be queer is to be “unnatural”.

“We have been compelled in our bodies and in our minds to correspond, feature by feature, with the idea of nature that has been established for us. Distorted to such an extent that our deformed body is what they call “natural,” what is supposed to exist as such before oppression. Distorted to such an extent that in the end oppression seems to be a consequence of this “nature” within ourselves (a nature which is only an idea).”

(Wittig, p.9, 1992)

By this definition of Wittig, during oppression, that is, in the state of queerness, one exists as an “unnatural”. She furthers by saying that “One is not born, but becomes a woman” (Wittig, p.10, 1992). I definitely agree that it is nurture and culture which forms the identity, and not biological factors. However, the use of the word “unnatural” is problematic for the masses. To say that being a lesbian, for example, is “unnatural” because women are formed and are not born by “nature” just makes it easy for society to tweak this and put on a negative connotation to being queer. We are arguing that gender due to nature does not exist and it is extremely ironic that nature, particularly biology, is also the primary argument for the discrimination of the queer community. People who take pride in discriminating genders would just argue that being “unnatural” connotes a problem, psychological perhaps. The challenge in this case is, therefore, how to translate the cultural contribution to one’s identity in a way that could be understood well by the masses and not be an added factor to further discrimination.

“To refuse to be a woman, however, does not mean that one has to become a man…For a lesbian this goes further than the refusal of the role “woman.” It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of a man.”

(Wittig, p.13, 1992)

This beautifully put quote from Wittig further emphasizes that things are not just black and white. It was never about being just either a female or a male. There is a wider spectrum between the male and the female that people have to understand. And the breaking of these black and white definitions goes beyond furthering into the borders of masculinity and femininity. It also involves the refusal of an ideology and an economic and political assertion of power. To deny the dualist stereotype is to deny power to a system that placed dualism as a dominant structure in the first place. This is why the call for a progressive representation, not just in media, is important because it goes beyond dualism and tries its hardest to explore and understand the marginalized communities. But what is, in fact, a progressive representation?

“Instead of psychological complexity, we find predictable types and cardboard role- models. Instead of intellectual depth, we find a political slogan disguised as a narrative. Instead of aesthetic ingenuity, we find a stilted form of social realism. Instead of “accurate” or “positive” images of the gay community, we find an anodyne fantasy of the gay community.”

(Hanson, p.8, 1999)

“I was troubled by a pronounced audience tendency: the desire for something predictable and familiar up there on screen.”

(Rich, xxii, 2013)

As previously mentioned, it is very likely for society to keep falling into the trap of stereotypes, especially because queerness is attached to capitalism because it is linked to what is marketable and what the audience will like. We cannot change the tendency that the audience will want to look for a familiar stereotype or something that they are used to. However, we can try to change that which they are used to. 

“Instead of being politically correct about what we see, we are asked to be politically correct about how we desire.”

(Hanson, p.13, 1999)

We need to examine our own desires as much as we need to examine what is being desired. It is important to call out misrepresentations, but it is equally as important to look into our own tendencies and, therefore, our own standards because, more often than not, these standards are highly influenced by the power in play in the society. A progressive representation is that which is inclusive, therefore, our standards have to be inclusive, as well. All representation matters because, the moment you put people in a box, you oppress them. Queer people, just like any other character in a film, have to be able to be everything, from heroes to villains. Their representation should not be limited only to what is “politically correct” because this is, yet, another definition that may be limiting. When there are limitations, chances are, you remove their possibilities. 

In order to promote inclusivity in forming queer characters in cinema, there has to be enough discourse. Another danger to this is the bias against emotional discourse. Wittig describes it as “the one which says: you do not have the right to speech because your discourse is not scientific and not theoretical“ (Wittig, p.26, 1992). It is, in essence, a wrongfully put assumption that you do not know what you are talking about because of your biological limitations characterized by your emotions. For example, people feel strongly about their sexuality as being queer, but this identity is invalidated by society because they assume that it is based on emotion and not scientific facts. The society nowadays, being in an age of exploration and new discovery is, fortunately, more open to discourse. However, in this discourse, a common mistake is to engage in conversation for the mere purpose of generating yet another definition. Society should stop trying to define. It seeks to get a glimpse of queerness, for example, just so it could be put on a canvas. It’s effort to understand is equated with the effort to produce something marketable and definable. This way, cinema is not progressive in its totality, but performative because, more than trying to market queer, it is also still sanitizing it to fit a certain definition. Current cinema, in this sense, is still a barrier to progressive representation.

Lastly, just as with the argument that nothing is ever natural and that culture prevails, we have internalized everything, including homophobia and biased judgment towards the queer community. We were not born politically correct and incorrect. Rather, it is us who decided which aspects of culture we will allow ourselves to be instilled with. This is why discourse is extremely important. We need to keep talking about these things because they matter in as far as people are actually being oppressed. The moment we stop talking about something, it ceases to matter. So we need to keep discussing progressive representation, especially in the media, which is highly influential. And in doing so, we need to ask the right questions, and not keep questioning the essence of things, seeking to define a scope which is immeasurable in the first place because, at the end of the day, the essence of a person is not what matters, but rather her/his freedom to assume fully the person that s/he is born to be.

References:

  • Creed, B. (1995). Lesbian Bodies: Tribades, Tomboys and Tarts (1st ed.). London: Routledge.
  • Hanson, E. (1999). Introduction. In E. Hanson, Out Takes. Duke University Press.
  • Rich, B. (2013). Introduction. In B. Rich, New Queer Cinema. Duke University Press.
  • Wittig, M. (1992). One is not born a woman, The Straight Mind. In M. Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Beacon Press.
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Film 270 Post

Week 11: Visual Transcendence

There was a brilliant 10-minute short film that went viral a couple of times in social media. It was made back in 2018 and is entitled “Leading Lady Parts”, written and directed by Jessica Swale, produced by Rebel Park Productions, starring a number of female celebrities including Catherine Tate, Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, and Florence Pugh, to name a few. As the title implies, the film is set in an audition room where several actresses come in for a script read in front of the casting director and crew who, in turn, dictate what they want from each actress in terms of both emotion and physicality. In one of the earlier scenes where they ask an auditionee what they thought of the character, she replies with “I think she’s pretty”, to which the panel sighs in relief, but is eventually disappointed when the auditionee meant to say “pretty clever”. The panel responds, “Clever’s not really something we want or care about, at all, actually. You do realize this is the leading lady part?”. The film went on to show extremely unrealistic demands of the casting panel, such as in an instance when they were talking about making the character cry, to which they emphasized, “She could cry, but not like ugly cry. More like sensual sexy crying, like wet, in a shower of crying…and smiling.” Lastly, the panel also went to the extremes, discriminating auditionees of color, as well as those who are not of the “ideal” body type as dictated by the highly unrealistic standards of society. The most notable quote of the film from the panel is when they asked Florence Pugh to lose weight, saying:

“Could you just be a bit thinner? We really saw her as thin, like a twiglet. You know, feminine, vulnerable, delicate, thin, but with a great rack! Stick thin with boobs and hips, but not big hips not, you know, “baby bearing” hips…It’s not rocket science darling, we’re just asking you to be thin and curvy, sexy and innocent…Just you know, “leading lady”.”

– from Leading Lady Parts (Swale, 2018)
A screen caption from Leading Lady Parts (Swale, 2018)

The film ended with the panel ultimately casting Tom Hiddleston for the leading lady part, without even letting him read lines from the script. It was, overall, a brilliant criticism of the ridiculous expectations from women in the industry, as opposed to men who can just choose and get the parts that they want simply because they are men. It was a stab at the dominant sexism and racism towards women which, unfortunately, go beyond the boundaries of the film industry. In this discussion about the expectations from women, it is also important to tackle their public portrayal in film that is the root of these expectations. Throughout the history of cinema, they have been shown as many things, five of which I will highlight in the succeeding paragraphs.

“The determining male gaze projects its phantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”

(Mulvey, p.11, 1975)

First, and arguably the most common one, is that women are usually shown as objects of pleasure. They appear on screen for the sole purpose of being looked at. Everything, from their head to toe must be conventionally attractive because it is their job to attract, not only the leading men, but also the audience. Mainstream film has been structured to direct attention to the female human form. She is admired, fantasized on, examined and, as I would like to put it, visually stripped and harassed. The gaze towards her, no matter how innocently it begins, eventually turns erotic, as it is designed to be developed in that manner. Most especially in early cinema, the female character never drives the plot, but rather freezes it as she turns all attention towards her. She is both an attraction and a distraction. She never gives too much emotion or action, so as not to drive too much attention away from her physicality. Mulvey perfectly captures this in her essay, saying:

“…her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation…As Budd Boetticher has put it: ‘ What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.’”

(Mulvey, p.11, 1975)

Second, in the evolution of cinema, women have been given a wider scope in their roles. They are now given the freedom to execute one important gesture of emotion that they were trained so well to do—cry. And it is with all the intensity of sarcasm that I intend to say that it is extremely delightful that women were also given the chance to play between being scared, sad, angry, and vulnerable. It just proves how well they give the “distressed” part to the role of “damsel-in-distress”.

“Obviously their emotions have overpowered their reason, and they can’t control themselves.”

 – Plato’s view of the soul and body (Spelman, p.115, 1982)

Turning away from film a little bit, there are countless times wherein women would not get elected for a government position because people would argue that they are so hormonal, they could “start a war within 10 seconds”. But then again, just as a journalist pointed out, weren’t all wars started by men? In the context of cinema, it was established previously that women were intended to pause the narrative to gain attention for themselves. That would mean that the male characters, down to the viewers, are overfilled with their erotic desires that they literally freeze to look at that which captivates them. This implies that it is the men, not the women, who appear to have no control over their emotions. They are the ones whose reasoning is overpowered by their desire. Such emotional triumph over thinking not only limits the narrative, but also limits the art in the perspective of the viewer, who cannot help but reduce it to merely satisfy a visual pleasure.

Third, women are treated as lower beings. Spelman mentions that “slaves, free laborers, children and animals are put in their place on almost the same grounds as women are” (Spelman, p.118, 1982). This brings about oddity, as one would not typically fetishize over something they look down on. Fetishism is usually a product of admiration, not of hatred or classism. In relation to this, women are also treated as possessions. The clash between fetishism and discrimination is ultimately bridged by possession, which is an act of trying to own and grasp things which you cannot understand. Since it has been difficult to understand women, emotionally and physically, because of their difference to men, they are being admired and oppressed at the same time. It mirrors the urge to possess and give meaning to art so that its transcendence may be brought down to something more reachable to the common man.

Fourth, women are used to represent and embody men’s insecurities. They are everything which a man cannot and should not be. A man ought not to dwell on his emotions, according to society. He should be a thinker, not a household laborer. His physicality and disposition should neither be equated to weakness and femininity. He can only give out reasoning, not empathy, discourse, not compassion. The image of a woman as a castrated man enrages the male because the absence denotes the void in his being, as well as his limitations.

“Woman’s body is slashed and mutilated, not only to signify her own castrated state, but also the possibility of castration for the male. In the guise of a ‘madman’ he enacts on her body the one act he most fears for himself, transforming her entire body into a bleeding wound.”

(Creed, p.52, 1986)

Lastly, women are portrayed as bridges in a man’s story. They are passersby, never heroes. The woman neither brings questions, nor answers. She is simply there to stop by and leave for the narrative to go on. She becomes the subject of the story when she is looked upon, but as soon as the gaze reaches an end, she has to vanish, for her existence will only hold back the man from fulfilling his purpose. The man, by all means, has to succeed. He has to move on and reach the epitome of his being and purpose, and he has to do it in the absence of that which represents everything that he cannot be. As Creed directly puts it:

“She is no longer the subject of the narrative; she has become the object of the narrative of the male hero. After he has solved her riddle, she will destroy herself.”

(Creed, p.61, 1986)

Given all these primitive standards of portrayal that continue to exist for women, it would be unfair to say that cinema has not progressed after all these years. Women are continuously on the way to getting the respect and place that they deserve in society. With the rise of feminism, they have been given main roles, roles that defy the typical “feminine” character, and even roles that highlight their womanhood as strengths, not weaknesses. Throughout the years, women became warriors, bosses and heroes, while being mothers, wives, and sisters. However, as prevalent in the short film mentioned in the introduction, women are still not completely free from the double standards of society. To this, I would like to raise an argument that the concept of female liberation will only be possible through the death of the body.

Plato, in all his misogynistic views, mentioned that “when one is released from the body one can finally get down to the real business of life, for this real business of life is the business of the soul” (Spelman, p.111, 1982). In the context of cinema, for the art of the film to transcend, the fixation on the human body should cease. Voyeurism, as an extremely male tendency, would be difficult to eliminate because, after all, cinema exists partly for pleasure. However, if one wishes to appreciate art in its entirety, one must suspend her/his bodily tendencies and allow the art to be experienced in its absolute form. In watching and telling a story, both the viewer and the artist should aspire for the “death of the body” so as to get to the core of the soul of the art. Something about the body distracts us, and this is the mortal beauty that it is attached to. Plato further argues that,

“Yes, there are beautiful things, but they only are entitled to be described that way because they partake in the form of Beauty, which itself is not found in the material world.”

(Spelman, p.111, 1982)

Cinema has always been fixated on the beauty of the woman. This trickles down to a certain obsession on youth that has led to further discrimination when women reach a certain age. Meryl Streep even said in an interview that by the time she turned forty, she kept being offered witch roles, and this is already coming from one of the industry’s most decorated actresses of her generation. The industry praises men for aging well and applauds them for being “versatile” when they play less physical and more dramatic work as they grow old. Meanwhile, women are seen at a “downfall” in their acting career the minute they begin playing mother roles. Plato mentioned that “to have more concern for your body than your soul is to act just like a woman” (Spelman, p.115, 1982). It is absolutely incorrect to assume that women do not value their souls as much as they value their physicality. However, it is true that they put a great effort to beautify themselves, but this is only because they are told to do so because they are not free. Women have to be beautiful because beauty is all society ever sees value in. They are still slaves to patriarchal standards that they are fighting really hard to break. This brings us to the subject of female liberation. In her essay, Spelman quotes Friedan,

“…men have done more important things, the mental things; women have been relegated in the past to the less important human tasks involving bodily functions, and their liberation will come when they are allowed and encouraged to do the more important things in life. Her (Friedan’s) solution to what she referred to as the “problem that has no name” is for women to leave (though not entirely) women’s sphere and ascend into man’s.”

(Spelman, p.122, 1982)

In my opinion, “liberation” is too much of a word. Women are not to be liberated by becoming thinkers because they already are thinkers. They are philosophers as much as they are mothers. They are scientists and astronomers as much as they are household helpers and laborers. To isolate liberation to the idea of having no room for labor, is to only focus on the upper class. Women work for a living just like men. All people are subjected to labor because they have to survive. That does not mean that they are any less thinkers. To use the term “liberation” is to imply that women, once again, are damsels-in-distress who need to be saved. They are oppressed, yes. But they are more than capable of saving themselves. Their sole existence, as they are, regardless of their function in society, so long as they are not being held back by patriarchal standards, is freedom, itself, beyond the concept of liberation. Women are free. We have reached the point in society where women can be who they are and express how they feel. We, the viewers and consumers of art, are the ones who are not free. We are still trapped in the standards of voyeurism and fetishism that we, ourselves, set. And so long as we keep choosing to be enslaved by the visual prison we have made, we will continue to be deprived of seeing art, and women, in their absolute freedom and transcendence. 

References:

  • Creed, B. (1986). Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection. Screen27(1), 44-71.
  • Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen.
  • Rebel Park Productions. (2018). Leading Lady Parts [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEdJ4PIGad4
  • Spelman, E. (1982). Woman as Body: Ancient and Contemporary Views. Feminist Studies8(1), 109.
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Film 270 Post

Week 10: The sky is the limit

I was only about ten years old when I first watched The Sound of Music as part of my e-learning class. With her iconic twirl as she sang the very first lines, “the hills are alive with the sound of music…”, I remember falling instantly in love with Julie Andrews because she was the voice to the song I have been taught to sing and play in the piano ever since I was a child. I was magnetized by her music, leading me to watch more of her musical films such as Mary Poppins and Thoroughly Modern Millie. I was so young and obsessed with her, I even recall downloading all the pictures I could find of her on the internet when I was thirteen using our very early version of a PC (with diskette drives and all). I even wrote her a fan mail once as a teenager. Beginning with an admiration of her music, I grew amazed by her beauty and elegance. She became my style icon, as I persuaded my mom to buy me more dresses like hers. As I grew up, I began appreciating her more as an artist, leading my friends and family to buy me DVDs of her films from Amazon as Christmas gifts. I watched all of her interviews, her TV stints, her broadway clips, and all possible videos of her on Youtube. And with the rise of social media, I began following all her channels and fan pages. Since then, I have been constantly updating myself with her life story, gossip and celebrity news about her, as well as her latest projects. I admired her so much as a musician, an artist and, eventually, as a person, and I can definitely say that Julie Andrews is one of the people who introduced me to and made me fall in love with the world of music and film. I still dream about meeting her someday because where I am now is partly due to the inspiration she has given me simply by just existing.

Julie is just one of the many “stars” who continuously influence people with their works and ways of living. Artists like her have a reach beyond the four corners of the screen. Through the works of art they make, we, the audience, gain access to the roles and characters they play. But it is through further technology and mass communication where we are also given access to their world in such a way that their personal lives eventually become like the films we are so keen on watching. It’s almost as if the life of a star is not hers/his alone, but the public’s, as well. Loss of privacy is, indeed, a consequence of stardom, but so is the opportunity to create an impact to communities Nevertheless, star celebrity culture is inevitable because of their contribution to both the film industry and society, two of which I will highlight below.

First and foremost, stars somewhat give an economic assurance to the films they appear in through their performance, embodiment of their roles, as well as their trademark. Patrick Phillips describes this as their “insurance” and “production” values which, both guarantees the success of the films, as well as bring something unique to the meaning of the art (Phillips, p.182, 1999).

Trademark is more than just a sign of quality — as in a “guarantee”; it is also a condensed meaning—a communication of what the film will be about and how it will feel.”

(Phillips, p.182, 1999)

By communicating how the film will look and feel, people will know what to look for depending on their own personal feelings. For example, if one is feeling hopeless and is in need of a bit of uplifting and joy, s/he may want to rekindle the child within and watch Disney films because one of their main trademarks is their theme of hope. Associating this definition with the role of stars, when a viewer wants to feel happy, s/he might opt to watch films with Eddie Murphy, Betty White, or Jack Black because they are known to produce good comedies. This way, stars are significant in the industry because of their marketing and economic value to the art they are involved in via association with certain themes and trademarks.

“In star study we are interested in the transformation of the ordinary, the presence in our lives of the extraordinary. While this is true, our interest in these figures is intensified by the sense of their ordinariness.”

(Phillips, p.181, 1999)

Secondly, stars signify a transformation of the ordinary. Phillips makes a great point about this with the statement above, emphasizing the presence of the stars as the “extraordinary” amidst the “ordinary”. Stars are, realistically speaking, ordinary people. Ironically, they are only elevated to the status of “extraordinary” by the very people who desire to relate with them. They are extraordinary because society labels them as such, and they are only extraordinary insofar as we let them be. This is why stars-as-celebrities take good care of their public image so as to not lose public admiration and attention.

“A star’s commercial capacity is inextricably bound up with his or her ability to ‘be liked’ by large numbers of people from a range of cultural and national contexts.”

(Watson, p.169, 2012)

When we look at stars, we seek out their life stories and highlight their ordinariness and their transformation process. We, then, label this transformation as “inspirations” to dream big or to believe in miracles. It is all basically taking a concept of the ordinary and marketing it as something beyond that. And this is all partly rooted in society’s desire to have role models. People are naturally self conscious in this very diverse and different world. They crave to have a model who they can aspire to become. We are naturally inclined to the practice of imitation and comparison. This is why we need a basis, a standard or, ultimately, an “ideal”. And the people who are more than capable to set the ideal are, generally, the ones in power—the upper class. The dominating power needs visual and physical outlets to strengthen the imposition of their ideologies. They own and control media resources so they can, therefore, dictate concepts such as the standards of beauty, standards of masculinity and femininity, as well as handpick those who fit into their self imposed categories. This is why, for a long period in early film, “black face” was acceptable in representing characters of color. Racism, in general, was acceptable, as anyone who was not white could not possibly think of being labeled as beautiful or having a lead or any role in a film, in that matter. For a time, as well, female characters have always been given roles that would make them victims of the male gaze and objects of sexual desire. Paul Watson puts this into question by asking, “Are female stars, then, somehow, less popular with audiences than male actors, or does the structure of the film industry force them, as Christine Geraghty notes, to ‘operate in a different context than their male counterparts?’” (Watson, p.168, 2012). The women were always portrayed as vulnerable, weak, and generally not vocal or opinionated. In the Philippine context, this image has been taught in society, leading them to mold and raise the Filipinas according to the image of Maria Clara, who is a damsel-in-distress and tends to faint during almost any hint of a problem. 

Star studies have been known to look in terms of the economic impact of stars, as well as their objectification, cultural and societal impacts. However, I would like to suggest that, given the crucial times of media evolving, more than ever, star studies should take a look at the scope of stardom. By this, I mean eventually looking at the gates of stardom—who are we giving the shots to, as the audience with the power to bestow that which is “extraordinary”? We already know the impact of stars in molding generations. We are also aware of them being the standards of society. Therefore, it is important that the scope for stardom is more inclusive. In looking at the scope, questions like “Why are we not giving her more screen time? Or why are we hesitant on casting him?” should be proactively asked in the context of the involvement of the minorities. With the move for more inclusive opportunities, people are now questioning casting, for example. There are organizations voicing out for the production companies to consider casting PWDs for PWD roles, which have long been played by people without disabilities. A dominant argument against this claim is that the reason why it is called acting is that actors are cast to pretend to be people that they are not, so there is nothing wrong with casting straight people for LGBTQ+ roles or white people for colored characters. But this argument is very old and leaning towards the traditional point of view that refuses any form of change because it is automatically threatened by any other presence in the industry apart from theirs. The problematic argument of the definition of acting has formed a blurred line already in terms of who can take the role. But when one looks closely, this is still about the dominating ideology fighting off minor ones.

“The operations of the dominant ideology are thus a ceaseless effort to mask or displace both its own contradictions and those contradictions to it that arise from alternative and oppositional ideologies.”

(Dryer, pp.2-3, 1979)

This is still about powerplay, and the refusal to let other people in due to fear of being overthrown in the industry. This is still a protest to the changing of the standards that have been the “normal” for centuries. All this is exactly why voices against the dominant ideology should be made louder. The gates of stardom should be forced to open wider. If people were to see and appreciate, they should be given the chance to see more and, therefore appreciate more. This will create a good discourse on preferences, varying role models, etc. Through this, the “ideal” will be expanded and personalized and, in effect, the “ideal” will be more real. This will not make the extraordinary more ordinary. In contrast, it will allow more aspects of the ordinary to be considered “extraordinary”.

More than any of its functions, being a star is a social responsibility. With the attention focused on the entirety of the star’s life and being, s/he is given a powerful platform to voice out her/his opinions on issues in politics, society, down to little details such as trends. In the context of film, the stars’ portrayal of people and communities is also a great responsibility because they have to do it in a way that will give respect to the people and respect to their stories. But from the perspective of the viewers and filmmakers, the duty of making a star is also a serious social responsibility. As filmmakers, it’s our job to make as many voices heard and as many faces seen. Artists and creators are elated into a platform like the dominant classes to create an ideology or to add to the discourse. We are given a voice and we should make it good, make it count, and make it heard. As a person who spent most of her life admiring one star who is undoubtedly talented, compassionate and deserving of the acknowledgement she gets, I am deeply grateful that I have been given a role model who also became my inspiration. However, as a future filmmaker, it is of my greatest desire that I will be able to contribute to enabling the future generations to see more than just one star in the sky.

References:

  • Dryer, R. (1979). Introduction. In R. Dryer & P. McDonald, Stars (pp. 1-4). London: British Film Institute.
  • Phillips, P. (1999). Stars, 181-192.
  • Watson, P. (2012). Stars studies: text, pleasure, identity. In Stars studies: text, pleasure, identity (5th ed., pp. 167-184). New York: Routledge.
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Week 9: A Question of Possession

Let’s get a bit personal. When I was a child, I was introduced into the world of fairytales through the very first Disney princess film that I watched, Cinderella. Young as I was, I automatically fell in love with the idea of having a fairy godmother, wearing pretty dresses, singing with animals and, of course, falling in love with a prince and living happily ever after with him sweeping me off of my feet and into the castle of my dreams. However, as I grew up, my fondness in reading and watching has introduced me to many more versions of Cinderella such as Ella Enchanted and Ever After, which tackled her story in different ways, but with both refusing to portray her as a damsel-in-distress, but a rather independent and strong character. Of course, in my fascination, I eventually ended up discovering some other versions which are very grim and involved sisters cutting off their heels and getting their eyes pecked by birds. Still, I read and read and was fascinated by the different portrayals and versions of the same character throughout different times and cultures. The same is true with my relationship with music. Being a musician, myself, I have always been fond of listening to modern takes of old classic hits. It’s always refreshing to hear an artist cover a song because each take is reflective of different emotions and contexts, making each listening experience unique and new.

As evident with what I have shared so far, I have always been more inclined to focusing on the content rather than who made it. I was always the person in the group who knew the song but not the singer. This tendency of mine made it difficult for me to adjust in my years in secondary school, as well as in college, because higher education demanded a certain fixation on authorship. In every literary lesson, there always had to be prior research and discussion on the author before we proceed to talk about the work. Everything was talked about—from the author’s childhood, career, issues, difficulties, advocacies, down to gossip. And all these were somehow incorporated into the discussion of the work as an effort to “contextualize” it. This led me to my understanding that the need to always look for and get to know the author was a staple item in the process of the analysis of art. With this, I have identified four main reasons as to why there is such a need in the first place.

First, and probably the most relevant reason nowadays, is the demand for accountability. We live in a fortunate time where change is being proactively pushed for. To state an example in the context of cinema, early films have always been about strong masculine characters saving damsels-in-distress. Female characters have always been subjected to the male gaze, and their primary purpose in a film is to supply the sexual visual needs of the dominantly male audience. Back then, white actors painting their faces black to portray African or Asian characters was totally acceptable. Stereotyping was the norm, racist and sexist jokes were also funny to the audience, and LGBTQ+ characters were always comedic side roles. Fortunately, the succeeding generations have grown to realize that these portrayals are not accurate, and neither are they okay. “Clearly, the cinema “reproduces” reality” (Comolli & Narboni, p. 755, 1971), and these portrayals unrealistically fail to capture the totality of the human beings they have been trying to show. Instead, they created their own version of reality that was watched by all and, thereby, influenced the actual reality to be shaped accordingly. And now, humanity has been shaken enough to understand how they have been played by what was shown to them all along. This led to anger, frustration and, eventually, the demand for change. 

The primary steps taken in this demand was to call out the continued misrepresentations and, in contrast, to acknowledge those who are doing things rightfully. In the process of calling out, it is understandable that there is a need to identify who is responsible for such work of art. This eventually puts emphasis on the determination of who is accountable for this wrongdoing so that the public could criticize and, somehow, crucify the author. Although some call outs are necessary because this is how the generation of artists will learn from their mistakes, still, there are some call outs that are unnecessary and were only triggered by the “cancel culture”. Nevertheless, such are reflections of a society outraged by the tremendous errors of the past. On a positive note, the same society also looks for the author of a “rightful” piece and glorifies her/him for getting things right. The author is amplified as much as her/his work so that s/he may serve as an example to aspiring and current artists about what the current generation demands for in terms of content. Such process is, indeed, a product of the evolution of society and, with it, the evolution of art.

The second reason for the need to identify a sole author of an artwork is the innate human desire to interpret art. I would like to quote a statement by Susan Sonntag that absolutely agree with,

“Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”

(Sonntag, p.4, 1966)

It is very human for us to look for the meaning behind things which we do not understand. Art can be a surreal experience, unique and different to each who views it. Despite the fact that some art aims to mimic reality, realities of the artist still differ from the realities of the viewer. This tension behind realities creates confusion and possible misinterpretation of the work. Naturally, we are scared of what we don’t understand, so we seek comfort in one who can explain things. In the case of art, this pertains to its maker—the author.

“The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author “confiding” in us.”

(Barthes, p.313, 1967)

People demand for the explanation when they are aware of the existence of the person who they can demand it from. By pinpointing who is accountable for a work, they seek the affirmation of their interpretations because having a realm of endless possibilities to a story is more frightening than taking a single explanation as it is and moving on. People crave for the gossip, the facts, the ultimate “truth” of the art, and they do not hesitate in identifying the author, cornering her/him, and imposing that it is her/his responsibility to explain the art which s/he enabled them to consume. This desire to interpret ultimately leads to the third reason for seeking the author, which is the people’s urge to criticize.

“When the Author has been found, the text is “explained” — victory to the critic. Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic. In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered.”

(Barthes, p.316, 1967)

Back then, when criticism was largely equated to interpretation, the goal was to derive meaning from the work, and the easiest way to do so was to let the artist explain. The reason behind this was most likely because of the urge to verify first the meaning of a work before saying something about it. It was ultimately playing safe to avoid errors in judgment and to form a more concrete opinion based on the established meaning of the work, rather than one’s own interpretation, which is deemed unreliable as compared to the artist’s claim. Once one true interpretation has been established, another objective might be to find loopholes.

“Once we realize that it is the nature of the system to turn the cinema into an instrument of ideology, we can see that the filmmaker’s first task is to show up the cinema’s so-called “depiction of reality”…Certainly there is such a thing as public demand, but “what the public wants” means “what the dominant ideology wants.””

(Comolli & Narboni, p. 755, 1971)

As a capitalist product, cinema, both consciously and unconsciously, complies to the system it adheres to. In line with criticism is the objective to inspect whether or not the work of art complies (or complies enough) to the standards revolving around the ideology it is bound to. The critic will, not only try to find loopholes in the work’s adherence, but also question the sufficiency of its conformity. The critics are also tasked to determine how the author makes use of the ideology in the work, whether or not s/he tries to oppose or agree with it, and whether the art is a criticism of this ideology or a complete product of it. 

“Every film is political, inasmuch as it is determined by the ideology which produces it.”

(Comolli & Narboni, p. 754, 1971)

“In this sense, the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society.”

(Foucault, p.305, 1969)

Another task of the critic, once provided with the definition and meaning of the art by the author, herself/himself, is to determine the politics of the work. In its purpose of disentangling the work, rather than deciphering it, the critic determines where the art stands in terms of its politics. Whether or not it goes for or against the system, there will always be criticism depending on the standards of those in power. Ultimately, the author will be held accountable for the work’s standpoint in matters that it does not necessarily address, but is obliged to address as per the dominant ideology. 

The final reason for the need to identify a sole author of an artwork is the desire to humanize the work. When a work of art is associated with a singular name, its transcendence is reduced to a humanized entity, thereby making it more accessible to those who wish to grasp it. The artwork, in its full form, is beyond human understanding. When it is (a) accounted for, (b) interpreted, (c) criticized, and thereby (d) humanized, it is reduced to something tangible and ultimately to what it really is—a capitalist product. When the viewers are finally able to take a hold of art, they eventually are inclined to possess it and, finally, co-author it.

“We know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

(Barthes, p.316, 1967)

In society’s quest to dwell on the author, I would like to state that it is impossible for a work to have one singular author. There is no such thing. Each person holding a pen, a brush, or a camera has realities which are products of the works that precedes them, as well as the evolution of the society they live in. There are multiple influences in one mind and, therefore, many voices in one text. To give credit to only one voice is to disregard the history of the others. The experience of art is unique to each individual, based on their own personal realities. As a reader, for example, reads a text, s/he reads it and reflects on it based on her/his reality. Therefore, the meaning of the text diverts away possibly from what the “author” originally intended. As the reader unintentionally personalized the text, s/he becomes co-author of the work because, by this time, the work is already her/his own. Art, then, becomes possessed by s/he who digests it, reflects on it, and embodies it. It is rare for art to be taken as it is. Even so, it is still contextualized according to the realities of the readers-turned-co-authors. Ultimately, consumers of art are co-authors because they take the art and make it their own. During this process, the initial “author figure” is aware that s/he must let go of the work because it is not her/his anymore. Art is and has always belonged to everyone. The sooner we realize this, the more likely we can finally focus on giving due appreciation to the power and transcendence that every work of art rightfully deserves.

References:

Barthes, R. (1967). The Death of the Author. Aspen, 313-316.

Comolli, J., & Narboni, P. (1971). Cinema/ldeology/Criticism.Screen121(1), 752-759.

Foucault, M. (1969). What is an Author?. Lecture, Collège de France.

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Week 8: A Room for Second Chances

Every year, film communities, critics and enthusiasts, as well as seasonal moviegoers from all over the world tune in for the awards season in different countries. One of the highly popular and highly awaited award shows is Hollywood’s Academy Awards, more popularly known as the “Oscars”, which have already been running for 91 years since its establishment in 1929. The Academy, which has more or less 9,000 members as of 2020, has the power to give the most prestigious awards in Hollywood and, the way it works is that this exclusive club of members stretches over 17 branches, while its membership is bestowed via invite and sponsorship from within the Academy only. Because of the intense exclusivity, for many decades, it has been dominated by white males, the majority of which are over the age of 60 already. As the industry began to recognize its bias, and following the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the push for diversity within the Academy has intensified over the past years, thereby increasing female membership, as well as that of people of color. What is even more surprising is that it is formulating a 2025 diversity initiative for the qualification of films in each category, which supposedly will include criteria involving the inclusion of women, LGBTQ+ community, people of color, people with disabilities, and other underrepresented groups. Failure to include parts of these communities in the film would mean an automatic snub for the major award categories.

The reason for the statement of these facts about the Academy Awards is to give an example of some of the standards and criteria that the major industries have set for the judgment of films and filmmakers. Normally, films are judged for a competition based on their plot, cinematography, sound, originality and other factors, but the facts indicated above just shows that there is more to judgment than just looking and watching the films. Filmmaking is, after all, business and politics. However, the usage of award shows as an example does not equate the deliberation process of these shows to film criticism. Criticism is involved in the process, for sure, but it is overshadowed by so many other factors. The objective for these examples are merely to show that any film industry uses set standards and templates for the judgment and criticism of art such as film. Handpicked members, who are a privileged few, of numerous organizations, are formed to pinpoint which of the films produced in a year are considered the “best” and which ones are worthy of the general public’s time and money. Moreover, these decisions put the selected films on the pedestal which, in turn, influences other critics and movie reviewers regarding the “content” that they should view and write about. The whole process is an institutionalized viewing of art and picking out the ones that are deemed “good” based on their standards, with the intention of, not only recognizing and advancing the careers of the film auteurs, but also influencing the taste and standards of the general public, as well.

“Cinema is quite simply becoming a means of expression, just as all the other arts have been before it.”

(Astruc, p.17, 1948)

Film is an art of self expression as much as viewing it is an art of self realization. Just like any other artwork, the experience of it differs with every viewer. This is because viewing a film is not limited to watching it. Rather, when one watches a film, one takes all of her/his experiences, moods, personal history with oneself and experiences the art according to these very unique and personal realities. At the height of its flexibility as an art form, true enough, Astruc mentions, “The cinema today is capable of expressing any kind of reality” (Astruc, p. 21, 1948). And if there is any truth in the statements that each experience of art is unique, why then are these experiences being quantified? Why has there always been a need to set standards to quantify them and classify which art brings out good versus bad experiences? Based on these quantifications, certain qualities are also being identified as staple qualities that somehow become “required” in order for the art to be labelled as “good”. This leads to the development of templates that artists, should they wish their works to be recognized, must follow religiously. Divergence to such templates will result in either negative criticism or the general snubbing of their work. As such, does it mean that the setting of aforementioned standards destroy the essence of art and should, therefore, be considered unnecessary? Not exactly.

Art such as film needs certain standards because it has a commercial purpose. The process of creating it does have a personal aspect to it, and there are artworks created for personal use, but the majority are created for public consumption. Thus, in order for the public to properly digest and appreciate the art, the artist must partially speak their language, as well as gain their attention through the identified elements that the public is known to pay attention to. Here lies the never ending argument of whether or not a dot on a canvas or a banana taped to a blank wall is considered art. They can be and, for some people, they are, but can they be sold for a million dollars? 

“For the new soul is still a bud, still going through its most dangerous, most sensitive stage…Those “buds” often behave more like tough nuts”

(Kael, p.24, 1963)

Standards are necessary so that art could evolve and be contextualized, as well. Emerging artists, some of which tend to already be entitled upon entering the industry, are in need of being formed according to the context of the art in the current generation. These templates are also their gateway to the public’s attention, in a way. Ultimately, standards set are useful, but that does not mean that they are not limiting. In an industry where form is given a whole lot more importance than content, it will be extremely hard for the art to fulfill its purpose for self expression. Several aspects of it are bound to be toned down to meet expectations. However, these expectations are, more often than not, already preconceived judgments of the works of art based on several factors, one of which is the criticism of the work based solely on the auteur. In the case of film, if we were to use the auteur theory, this would be the director.

“An artist who is not a good technician can indeed create new standards, because standards of technical competence are based on comparisons with work already done…Just as new work in other arts is often attacked because it violates the accepted standards and thus seems crude and ugly and incoherent, great new directors are very likely to be condemned precisely on the grounds that they’re not even good directors, that they don’t know their business”

(Kael, p.14, 1963)

Pauline Kael seems to put into words these preconceived judgments in the elaborate statement above. Just as how form is considered superior, the act of putting down a verdict on a film exclusively based on the technical competency of an artist is completely unjust and unfair because of several reasons, two of which, I will expound on. 

The first is that filmmaking is teamwork. As an art form, it is an incorporation of several different arts such as music, digital animation, illustration, etc. Its complexity is achieved through the hundreds of people working to create a certain effect based on a unified vision. Focusing on the director alone is a total disregard for the multitude of people who were hired to help her/him achieve this vision. 

“A badly directed or an undirected film has no importance in a critical scale of values, but one can make interesting conversation about the subject, the script, the acting, the color, the photography, the editing, the music, the costumes, the decor, and so forth.”

(Sarris, p.562, 1962)

Also, it takes the focus away from the other elements of film (cinematography, sound, etc.), which should all be taken into equal consideration when making a criticism. They should not just be secondary conversation elements, as Sarris claims. The discussion on cinematography, for example, merits an equal space in a criticism as the discussion on direction. Passing on these elements drives criticism on a shallow level, concluding only upon the basis of an initial judgment. 

“What are fifty thousand new readers, who do not fail to see each film from a novel, if not bourgeois?…What then is the value of an anti-bourgeois cinema made by the bourgeois for the bourgeois?…Workers, you know very well, do not appreciate this form of cinema at all even when it aims at relating to them”

(Truffaut, p.16, 1954)

Second, the problem lies in the factors surrounding the setting of these expectations based on technicalities alone. This is where power comes in. Cinema, nowadays, is still the cinema of the bourgeois designed to meet the standards set by the higher classes because, logically, they are the ones who can afford access to the art. It is the bourgeois who make up the institutions who classify the good and the bad artworks, and it is also them (or us) who pretend to understand the struggles, likes and dislikes of the lower classes so that they could derive the formulas by which the majority could be fed with. These formulas, depending on the intention of the governing minority, may be genuine acts of communicating with the public, or they could be composed based on personal or political agenda. This is not to invalidate the fact that cinema, in its genuine progression as an art form, has proactively reached out to the other classes and has transformed itself into something that anyone could relate to. But it is hard to take the classes out of the picture because they are the consumers. Astruc says that “Up to now, the cinema has been nothing more than a show” (Astruc, p. 19, 1948). Films can be relatable to everyone, but they are not necessarily accessible to everyone. And until they are, chances are, cinema will remain as nothing more than a show whose progression will only be dictated by those who have the power to watch it.

Fortunately, in terms of the era of art, we are currently at an age of exploration. This is not only limited to the exploration of new methods and technologies that will further film’s boundaries, but it is also about the exploration of methods that would make the medium more reachable for the masses. But with the continuous battle for commercial value and significance, where will innovation take its place in an artist’s priorities?

 “The auteur theory, silly as it is, can nevertheless be a dangerous theory — not only because it constricts the experience of the critics who employ it, but because it offers nothing but commercial goals to the young artists who may be trying to do something in film.”

(Kael, p.25, 1963)

At the age of exploration, innovation or divergence of an artist from the norms can possibly lead to the beginning of a new movement in art. Kael creates a great emphasis on how criticism that is imposed by the industry should not aim to limit or constrict the artistic value of film, because it may hinder the development of film as an art. As an aspiring director, I would like to know what criteria I’m going to be judged by and why. However, new generation filmmakers such as myself are also aware of the practical need to comply with the industry standards set by the powers of the previous generation. The challenge in every generation is to fit the need and the desire to innovate in this tiny gap of control that an artist has with her/his art. However, it would be unfair to assume that criticism, unlike art, has not evolved from its conservative roots. Like the movement in the Academy Awards, film criticism is evidently progressing towards focusing on empowering the artist, as well as the viewers. Kael claims that,

“He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; He is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized.”

(Kael, p.21, 1963)

I absolutely agree with this statement and I do believe that film criticism is driving forward with this objective in mind. Inclusivity in the industry and openness to less commercial and more innovative works are good beginnings. And when the viewers are led to exploring for themselves the unique personal experience of the art, beyond its commercial value, the work will assume its full potential. The goal is to have, not only an empowered artist, but also a free one. And with critics not only focusing on initial judgments through limited elements, future filmmakers such as myself will have plenty of room for second chances in the industry we ultimately aspire to be in.

References:

Astruc, A. (1948). The Birth of a New Avant- Garde: La Caméra-Stylo. L’Écran Français.

Kael, P. (1963). Circles and Squares. Film Quarterly, 16(3), 12-26.

McKittrick, C. (2019). How Does a Film Qualify for the Best Picture Oscar?. Retrieved 5 November 2020, from https://www.liveabout.com/qualifying-for-best-picture-oscar-4071766

McKittrick, C. (2019). Who Votes for the Oscars?. Retrieved 5 November 2020, from https://www.liveabout.com/who-votes-for-the-oscars-4021744

Rottenberg, J. (2020). New Oscars standards say best picture contenders must be inclusive to compete. Retrieved 5 November 2020, from https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2020-09-08/academy-oscars-inclusion-standards-best-picture#

Sacks, E. (2020). Who makes up the academy? A breakdown of the exclusive Oscars club. Retrieved 5 November 2020, from https://www.nbcnews.com/pop-culture/awards/who-makes-academy-breakdown-exclusive-oscars-club-n1126866

Sarris, A. (1999). Notes on the Auteur Theory. In L. Braudy & M. Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism (5th ed., pp. 561-564). New York: Oxford University Press.

Truffaut, F. (1954). A Certain Tendency in French Cinema. Cahiers Du Cinéma, 9-18.

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Week 7: Redirecting Cinema

There is no singular person or organization that could be identified as the one who invented cinema. An early account, though, is the development of the Kinetoscope by Thomas Edison and William Dickson in the year 1891. This innovation enabled a person to view moving pictures through perforated celluloid film strips. This was the predecessor of the soon-to-be projector. This became a commercial success and, soon after, in 1895, the Lumière brothers from France developed the Cinématographe, a film projector, printer, and camera, which they used to project over 1000 moving pictures to an audience. Most of these depicted scenes from everyday life, with Workers leaving the Lumière Factory being the first. When the pioneers saw cinema as nothing more than a scientific innovation, more and more filmmakers, such as Georges Méliès and Edwin Porter, were given the platform to experiment and develop its potential through effects and methods of storytelling.

“Photography and the cinema on the other hand are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism.”

(Bazin, p. 12, 1967)

“Seeing people immobile in space, the photographers realized that what they needed was movement if their photographs were to become a picture of life and a faithful copy of nature.”

(Bazin, p. 20, 1967)

The fascination with cinema began with the desire to explore how to better capture reality. It was an experimentation with photography that succeeded in furthering existing technology. Man’s natural inclination towards creation has led to this obsession with, not just capturing reality, but recreating it. This obsession is evident in the evolution of art, mainly paintings, that for many centuries tried its best to place nature and humanity on a canvas. It was only during the expressionist era where art began to be more expressive rather than imitative. With cinema, early films were more for exhibitionism. When people got used to the idea of freezing, not only moments, but a duration of movement, narrative came into play. From here on, both cinema as an art form and cinema as business developed. But in terms of content, cinema has always been about projecting reality or a version of reality in one way or another. In the context of this projection, as stated by Bazin, “in spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually represented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space” (Bazin, pp.13-14, 1967) Cinema has evolved from the concept of reality, and is continuously progressing towards perfecting this purpose. Not only has it been successful in projecting reality, but it has also developed so far as to tweak, alter, and reimagine it. Given this, can we already assume that the essence of cinema is reality? I would argue not.

Cinema’s initial, not primary, purpose is to represent and recreate reality. Reality is, indeed, a solid part of its identity, but it is not its essence because it has evolved and expanded away from realism just as much as art in paintings and sculptures did. One good argument is that the essence of cinema is time because, in cinema, “time is manipulated. It’s controlled. And in the end, it’s what we capture, as well as what we experience” (Renée, 2013).  This argument further distinguishes cinema from photography, as photography freezes time, while cinema works with it and shapes it. While I agree with this, I would also like to propose that the essence of cinema also lies in its ability to communicate. 

Cinema is almost everything one could ever look for in a work. It is a very vast art form that makes use of a whole lot of combinations of other art forms such as music and sound, illustrations, photography, coloring, etc. Through these, it is able to construct the perfect illusions and representations of life. By this, cinema is able to communicate reality. It is also able to communicate time, whether it be by its stillness or its passage. In fact, it is able to communicate a lot of other things, among which are emotions, psychology, and spirituality. Cinema has long advanced from its sole identity of being a method of imitation towards being a method of communication.

“The real primitives of the cinema, existing only in the imaginations of a few men of the nineteenth century, are in complete imitation of nature…Every new development added to the cinema must, paradoxically, take it nearer and nearer to its origins. In short, cinema has not yet been invented.”

(Bazin, p. 21, 1967)

If we are to take this logic that an object or a concept has never been invented because everything that it has gone through has only contributed to reaching its future potential, then any object or concept will cease to exist. Say for example, in the context of the Philippine National Cinema, scholars are finding it extremely hard to define it because its evolution has been influenced by so many factors which make it hard to determine what is solely ours. There have been studies that limit “national cinema” to films produced either in the Philippines or by Filipinos only. There are also those who argue that “national cinema” does not exist because it is still being developed or defined. However, I would like to quote Prof. Nick Deocampo in his statement that one cannot have a national cinema without acknowledging all the historical and international influences that it has acquired throughout its years of existence. National Cinema is defined by Filipino-made and produced films, but it is also defined by the Hollywood influences, the early Spanish ideologies, the imported technologies, as well as the cultural preferences that the nation has inherited from its colonizers. Its identity should be taken as a whole, in all its developments, rather than being isolated for what it was initially made for. Going back to the context of cinema, with the logic that has been illustrated, cinema has, therefore, been invented. It has just evolved to fully capture its essence, rather than to go nearer its origins, contrary to what Bazin claims. 

“Today, the making of images no longer shares a question of survival after death, but of a larger concept, the creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal destiny”

(Bazin, p. 10, 1967)

Cinema’s origins lie in its function to imitate. But with times changing and technologies rapidly growing, cinema has expanded into being a tool for creation, adaptation, as well as criticism. It’s creation aspect is rooted in man’s natural tendency to build. However, it is also a nod to the artistic inclination that seeks to produce a new reality, rather than emulate one. Cinema as a form of adaptation stems from its history of recreating existing moments. However, beyond simulation, it is also a form of creative expression and retelling of stories that have been told countless times. Lastly, cinema has progressed to being a form of criticism, seeking to evaluate and push further the art form, as well as the world that surrounds it.

“If cinema in its cradle lacked all the attributes of the cinema to come, it was with reluctance and because its fairy guardians were unable to provide them however much they would have liked to.”

(Bazin, p. 21, 1967)

With this diversion away from its original purpose, did cinema actually evolve backwards? I would disagree. The cinema that we know now, with all its history, does not only imitate reality, but it also bravely addresses it. The concept of a total cinema is, indeed, a myth, primarily because it is ever changing. To attempt to redirect which path cinema should take or what cinema should be is to limit it. As with any other form of art, it should evolve freely, getting closer and closer to what it is meant to be at a particular period of time. It does not have to stick to its original purpose and form because its identity is constantly being defined by the circumstances it goes through. This does not mean that it will never be what it is just because it is constantly “being”. Rather, it should be set free from any historical and contextual limitations so that it can explore the fullness of its potential and possibly, like photography, give way to the discovery and development of another form of art with another purpose. 

References:

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Week 6: Happy endings are overrated

Once upon a time, there lived a girl with a beautiful heart. Her father died when she was young, leaving her to her stepmother and two stepsisters. She was treated as a maid, growing up, and was dressed in rags tainted with cinder. One day, the king decided to throw a ball in order to find the most suitable bachelorette for his son to marry. The girl wanted to go very badly, but her stepmother would not allow her. So she wished with all her heart until her fairy godmother appeared and transformed her into a princess, worthy of a prince’s attention. The catch, though, is that she should be back home before midnight, as the magic will fade away. So she went to the ball, met her prince, and they danced and fell instantly in love. But she had to go, leaving nothing—not even a name, but just a fallen glass slipper. The prince searched the entire kingdom, ordering every maiden to fit the glass slipper, until he eventually found her. Finally, the shoe fits, and they get married and live happily ever after. But wait, what if the shoe didn’t fit? What if it gets broken before she has the chance to try it on? What if he never found her? What will happen next? A blockbuster flop, that’s what.

Film stories historically began with fragments of spectacles. People were gathered in a room to be shown bits and pieces of everyday life, because filmmaking’s initial goal was to experiment with the medium that stemmed from capturing still moments, to eventually being able to capture movement. Eventually, when the medium evolved, the discoverers realized that there’s so much more to just capturing reality. At this point, reality was subjected to alteration and change. Thus, began the emergence of cinema’s function of storytelling. In a capitalist perspective, people were able to make money out of freezing stills. They, then, made money by projecting moments and, now, they can capitalize on telling stories. For any business or idea to take off, there had to, of course, be a structure. As the principles for storytelling were developed, the classical narrative template stemmed out of it, proving to be the most effective and profit maximizing form of storytelling to come out of its time.

“Classical narrative retains the dominant form…this is largely the consequence of establishing a model of film-making which at one and the same time uses the variables of film language seemingly invisibly to prioritize the audience’s investment in the structural imperatives of understanding the narrative and the emotional intensity underpinning the characters and their relationships.”

(Rowe & Wells, p.54, 2003)

The template of classical narrative begins with a protagonist, who automatically gains the viewer’s sympathy. S/he has a goal, which will soon be blocked by many obstacles that s/he will powerfully overcome. The story will follow a series of cause-and-effect events that will pave way for side characters to enter, bring about character development to the protagonist, as well as aid her/him in reaching both a dramatic pitfall and a climactic resurgence. All this will eventually end in an often positive resolution to the story, where all ends meet, and there exists a “happy ever after.” This structure is highly common, mostly because it is a sure win. It sets the viewers up for a journey, it thrills them and allows them to take part in a story that is beyond their world, and eventually, it satisfies their craving for a good ending. One can never go wrong with happy endings, made even larger by the difficulties preceding them, because people need to see and hear these kinds of stories. Given that the primary functions of film, in its early developmental stages, is for entertainment, the classical narrative did not fall short on providing just that. Another possible reason as to why the classical narrative has proven to be really effective is because it is logical. Human beings are natural storytellers and we are very much aware of the logic surrounding continuity of events. We always seek causal motivation, a connection of events brought about by cause-and-effect scenarios which are, primarily, what motivates and pushes a classical narrative forward. Of course, there are a lot of other reasons as to why the classical narrative structure makes sense. It is a well thought of and formulated structure, after all. But, given its dominance in the early beginnings and golden age of cinema, both in Hollywood and beyond, does it still have the same dominance today, in the age of contemporary cinema, more so in contemporary Philippine cinema?

“I assume that in any art, even those operating within a mass-production system, the art work can achieve value by modifying or skillfully obeying the premises of a dominant style.”

(Bordwell, p.5, 1985)

Contemporary art, generally, is a mixture of postmodernism explorations, themes of feminism, expressionism, appropriation, and digital art, among others. One can derive from this that we have come to a full circle into a new age of exploration, where the new era of art is still formulating a dominant style. Film, being a form of art, follows somewhat the same evolution. In the context of Philippine Cinema, it began with exhibitionism and the cinema of spectacle back in the Spanish occupation, before Spanish narratives eventually came in. Further down the road, the studio system was developed during the American occupation, thereby welcoming the infiltration of the Hollywood classical narrative format. The 50s was the age of post war films and the booming classical narrative industry. When the studios failed in the 60s, “bomba” films were produced with little to no narratives, as they were focused on theme rather than content. When these were suppressed during the Martial law days, the classical narrative returned into the picture, only this time, it was more linked with what Rowe and Wells deem as “alternative narratives”. The era that came after this was the age of action films that followed no less than the classical narrative of, usually, a macho male protagonist who is in a quest to save a vulnerable damsel-in-distress. In the end, as expected given the format, they run off happily into the sunset.

Modern Philippine cinema at least, at the beginning of the millennium, is characterized by the domination of the Hollywood films being screened. Only a few dozen local movies are being screened annually, and only the mainstream ones generate enough revenue to be exhibited longer. As with the template narrative of the action films, the romantic dramas and comedies also followed the same classical narrative, but with different themes. What this new era paved way to, on a positive note, was the rise of alternative and independent cinema, largely enabled by the platforms provided by the digital age. These contain what is classified as “art cinema”, deviating away from the classical narrative format. A decade later from the new millenium, the country is still infiltrated with the colonial mindset and the template Hollywood narratives, but the new generations are starting to be formed in a way that they are open to new forms of storytelling beyond the usual narrative. Contemporary cinema, as exploratory as contemporary art, is demanding a search for a new identity and a movement towards an innovation of storytelling. But how come?

“The closer we are able to fit the individual film into our existing templates, the easier it is for us to understand…Narrative analysis is concerned with the extent to which those things that we see make sense. It is assumed that those elements that we see cohere in some way, that they are part of a whole.”

(Rowe & Wells, p.79, 2003)

As previously mentioned, viewers from different generations have been fed the same stories over and over again, being told with only a variation of artists and the rise of the newly innovated filmmaking techniques brought about by different generation’s technological advances. The previous generations have been more accepting towards this type of cinema because of an escapist tendency, having been living in ages of colonization, war, and dictatorship. It was easy, logical, and familiar, therefore, effective and profitable. However, we are now at the age of digitization, where countless platforms are provided for anything and everything. Anyone and everyone can make art, and seldom are there limitations to those who can access these works. Since the platforms are countless, art has often been reduced to “content”, thereby implying a primary purpose of being sellable or generating enough revenue. To add to this, the audience’s attention span is decreasing, such that a two-hour film is already deemed long. Now is the age of short digital content that can capture a story, provide meaning, talk about an issue, or show an event within the smallest possible amount of time. It’s as pressuring as telling someone to change another person’s life in a minute. As such, there is a drive to change the format of storytelling and make it marketable in the quickest manner possible.

“The avant-garde has no monopoly on quality, and violating a norm is not the only way to achieve aesthetic value.”

(Bordwell, p.5, 1985)

All stories have been told already. What differs them from one another is the way that they are told. From the industry perspective, the main questions are: What would get people hooked in an age of media as a principal commodity? What does it take to be unpredictable and innovative nowadays? A common answer to these questions, of course, is the deviation from the norm and, in the case of cinema, this pertains to the classical narrative. Art is exploring a new identity, and so is cinema. Alternative cinema with the least conventional ways of storytelling are coming into a boom in the next decade. There is a gigantic call for inclusivity in the industry, thereby triggering films to tell diverse stories in diverse ways. There are stories being retold in the female perspective, in the perspective of the victim or the criminal, in the least expected character’s point of view, etc. There is seldom room for happy endings because there is a resurgence of the craving for realism in cinema. At one side, reality has become so bitter that people crave for stories they can relate to. They do not crave for boy-meets-girl and happy ever after, at least, not as much as they used to. They crave for films that talk about change, inclusion, peace, death, and injustice, no matter how gruesome the endings are. This is just a movement, of course. People are still captivated by the mainstream narratives and the shallow template stories. The difference is that they are more open now to stories being told in less conventional ways, with less conventional characters, and actual human character development and resolutions. The capitalist side is also driving towards this, with its insistence on Hollywood remakes. They, not only change the cast, but they also retell the story in different ways and perspectives, perhaps more stylish and deviant, therefore, more innovative.

So in what direction will all this take cinema? There are countless possibilities with this kind of openness in the new generation. Maybe, with the current generation’s attention span, we will come to a full circle with a new found appreciation on the cinema of spectacle. Maybe, given the expansion of technology, cinema can take the road of being just a virtual experience rather than having a narrative. Maybe, storytelling will not be limited as a task of the filmmaker, but also, interactively, the task of the viewer. Ultimately, perhaps, today, Cinderella does not have to meet her prince to be redeemed. In fact, maybe there is no prince and magic. The story of the girl covered in rags and cinder may end with her facing her own challenges and either failing or emerging triumphant, depending on the decisions she makes. Whether her story ends as a tragedy or a story of redemption won’t really matter. What matters is the refreshing way that this old tale will be retold because, at the end of the day, there is no more demand for an overrated concise happy ending, only a relatable one.

References:

Art History Timeline: Western Art Movements and Their Impact. (2019). Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://www.invaluable.com/blog/art-history-timeline/

Bordwell, D. (1985). The classical Hollywood style, 1917–60. In D. Bordwell, J. Staiger & K. Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema (pp. 1-72). London: Routledge.

Dorsche, J. (2018). The History of Philippine Cinema. Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://reelrundown.com/film-industry/filipino-movies

Film Narrative. (2020). Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://filmandphilosophy.com/2015/02/11/film-narrative/

Neale, S., & Smith, M. (1998). Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/scope/documents/2000/february-2000/book-rev-feb-2000.pdf

Rowe, A., & Wells, P. (2003). Film form and narrative. In J. Nelmes, An introduction to film studies (3rd ed., pp. 54-89). London, New York: Routledge.

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Week 5: Defining Reality

Before the emergence of written language, there existed rock carvings, cave drawings, and stone arrangements in Prehistoric Art. This was followed by Ancient Art’s spiritual and symbolic imagery. Medieval art somehow resembled this, but was leaning towards a bit more gothic themed. Then, eventually, the Renaissance period entered with its prioritization of details, realism, and fascination with elements of nature. In the succeeding eras, these realist features are exaggerated and embellished, until the peak of this grandeur and dramatic style culminated in the Baroque era. The eras that followed, such as Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism, all differ variously in styles, but not in their subject. The subject was always what is real, and the style just serves as an exploration and expression of that reality. It was only in the Post-Impressionism era, when abstraction was put in the spotlight. But even then, and with the emergence of Expressionism and Cubism, art was still about reality. 

“In defining them as art, it must always be kept in mind that even the most creative filmmaker is much less independent of nature in the raw than the painter or poet; that his creativity manifests itself in letting nature in and penetrating it.”

(Kracauer, p,153, 1960)

However, around the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud inspired an artistic movement that explored the surreal, thereby fueling movements such as Abstract Expressionism, and Optical Illusions. But with the advent of industrialization, our focus on dreams and worlds beyond ours were diverted again to what’s in front of us. The emergence of industries paved the way for Pop Art, and has forced art to focus on beautifying commodities so that they will sell. Years later, when marketing principles have been established, art is free again to find its new identity. This rich history of stylistic exploration has eventually led to Contemporary Art, which is ultimately an exploration in itself, of Postmodernism, expressionism, digital, street art, and many more. All these, of course, are still excluding other forms of art such as music, literature, and film. But even so, the emergence of photography and film still served the main purpose of capturing reality in one way or another. However, my primary intention in writing down this brief history of the evolution of art is to emphasize the fact that, in the majority of the entirety of its existence, art’s subjects have mostly been about what is “real”. This leads us to the question of what, actually, is so artistic about reality that attracts us to dwell on it so faithfully? Answering this question will lead us to the examination of the functions of art, four of which, I will highlight. 

First, we are inclined towards making reality the subject of art because we are naturally compelled to record data, more importantly, visual data. In a continuously growing society, time is of the essence, and people are constantly given the task to record as much as they can because, in truth, time will keep running. This is why we have avenues for recording such as journalism, the study of history, photography and, ultimately, film. The more we record, the more we can remember and grasp a moment that cannot be frozen in time. Beyond this, recording is also an effort of communicating, whether it be in today’s time, or from one generation to another. Art has to record because it has to keep conveying and expressing the realities of current generations as witnesses of evolution.

“It is entirely possible that a staged real-life event evokes a stronger illusion of reality on the screen than would the original event if it has been captured directly by the camera.”

(Kracauer, p.149, 1960)

Second, human beings are natural storytellers. Anything about everything can be made into a story. The best storyteller is one that can convince an audience that her/his stories are real events. Real stories are the more haunting ones because they either tell a historical occurrence, or they depict a version based on what really happened. This is why, when we watch horror movies or tragedies nowadays, it is more chilling if the film claims that it is “based on true events”. Of course, this way, art tends to enhance reality for the sake of entertainment and economic value, and people are aware of this and they are fine with “altered reality” because they would easily accept any story told to them, so long as it seems convincing. The world is very much obsessed with “chismis” or gossip culture, which boosts up the economic value of talk shows and reality shows. This is because gossips are real stories, masked or modified, to portray a reality apart from ours. One tendency to this is that people may become tired or bored of their own realities that they are drawn to the realities of others. Another possibility is that we insist on intruding on other people’s stories because we would like to grasp a reality of theirs that may seem unattainable to us and, therefore, is intriguing to us. In short, we want to hear stories of other people’s realities because we would like a taste of that which we may never experience. The value of the truth is so high, that people are so invested in investigative stories and shows that feature infidelities, guess-the-father in unexpected pregnancies, and other stories that are highly intrusive of other people’s lives.

Third, art has long established its function as a social commentary, even as materials for political discourse and propaganda. Art that is based on socio-political realities attracts people who either share similar views or are opposed to it. Since this particular function of art also aims to persuade masses into certain viewpoints by highly influential leaders and institutions, viewers are inclined to question the truth out of it so that they could decide on their standpoint. 

“The viewer is presented visually and ideologically with a single flat picture of the bourgeoisie world not to be unthinkingly accepted as transparent and easy to understand, but to be examined, criticized, and rejected.”

(Braudy & Cohen, p.3, 1974)

Overall, people are drawn towards art that represents realities which can be viewed, questioned, reflected upon, and criticized. This is mostly because people like having opinions and having a safe space to express these opinions. They appreciate commonality, but are also attracted to opposition. With art providing this avenue for discourse, people can keep deciding on matters of the past, present, and the future.

Lastly, art is an outlet for emotions. Humans, being naturally emotional, would always look for avenues to express their emotions. Physically, these are shown very easily through uncontrollable facial emotions and body languages. This is why Balasz, in his essay, emphasizes the value of the closeup. He says that close ups “show the faces of things and those expressions on them which are significant because they are reflected expressions of our own subconscious feeling” (Balasz, p.315, 1945). He further states that, “A good film with closeups reveals the most hidden parts in our polyphonous life, and teaches us to see the intricate visual details of life” (Balasz, p.315, 1945). More than expressing our emotions, we are inclined to find similar emotions in art which we could relate to. But beyond viewing art, another important self expression related to reality is imitation and, when pushed further, interpretation.

“Imitation also permits people to cope with significant experiences. It provides release and makes for a kind of reciprocity between the self and the world…In practice, there has always been the artistic urge not simply to copy but to originate, to interpret to mold.”

(Arnheim, p.185, 1933)

It may be true that the evolution of art is always in parallelism with reality, because reality is what we see, and imitating it is the only way we could possibly make sense of things. This way, we end up treating imagination as symbolism, and we consciously insert our own formative tendencies to depictions of realities. Ultimately, this leads to imagination being a method of redefining reality, where it’s role is just to push the limits of how far we can stretch reality to the point that it is still believable. At one point, there is indeed truth to these statements. But I would like to argue otherwise. I believe that there is no such thing as an absolute reality.

Reality is subjective. We often discuss reality as basically just what we see in front of us. This includes nature, people, societies, culture, etc. But, in my opinion, that is not the case. That is only a fragment of reality. Choosing to see reality as only such would limit it to visual reality, alone. This definition is clearly lacking. Instead, reality is a culmination of everything—the visual truth, historical context, personal experiences, down to emotional value. In the context of film, Kracauer, in discussing cinematic approach, mentions that,

“In strict analogy to the term “photographic approach” the film maker’s approach is called “cinematic” if it acknowledges the basic aesthetic principle…It is evident that the cinematic approach materializes in all films which follow the realistic tendency.”

(Kracauer, p.152, 1960)

This, in the context of my argument, is false because visual realism alone should not dictate the standards for aesthetic principles. To be clear, I am not saying that whatever we see in the world is not real. I am simply stating that they should not be the basis for reality, alone

Artistic movements beginning in the era of surrealism suggests the appeal of the surreal. Even nowadays, we are thrilled by the emergence of augmented reality, multiple-dimensional images and film experiences, as well as virtual reality. As Kracauer mentions, “the underlying formative impulses are so strong that they defeat the cinematic approach with its concern for camera-reality” (Kracauer, p. 153, 1960). There is a strong inclination to the formative approach because we are beginning to grasp the truth that the language of art is not caged in reproducing the physical world. Like in beauty, art is slowly rebelling against standards that have long been set by those in power. In terms of cinema, we are now seeing a dramatic advancement of the experimental genre, as well as a rising economic value for fantasy. Even an imagination of a reality can eventually be another person’s actual reality. The reason why contemporary art has barely any distinct overpowering style is because we are at an era of new discoveries and understanding of the potential of art. Art, therefore, nowadays, is not anymore caged to its ancient purpose of mimicking reality. It aims to redefine reality, talk about it, amplify it, and shape it in whatever form reality might take.

References:

Arnheim, R. (1933). The Complete Film. In Film and Reality.

Art History Timeline: Western Art Movements and Their Impact. (2019). Retrieved 11 October 2020, from https://www.invaluable.com/blog/art-history-timeline/

Balasz, B. (1945). The Close-Up. In Theory of the Film.

Balasz, B. (1945). The Face of Man. In Theory of the Film.

Braudy, L., & Cohen, M. (1974). Film Language. In Film Theory and Criticism.

Jirousek, C. (1995). The Evolution of Art. Retrieved 11 October 2020, from http://char.txa.cornell.edu/ART/introart.htm

Kracauer, S. (1960). Basic Concepts. In Theory of Film.

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Week 4: Investing in Words

How much is art, exactly? A painting on canvas, for example, could range from Php 3,000 if painted by a freelancer/amateur artist, and up to millions of pesos if painted by a professional or well-known painter. This differs from drawings made with charcoal, watercolor, or colored pens, which are a couple of hundreds, at bare minimum. A film, on the other hand, ranges from Php 150 to Php 280 at a local moviehouse, or up to Php 450 if screened at an IMAX theatre. Of course, exclusive screenings are priced differently, depending on the agreement with the exhibitor. Now let’s talk about how much it costs to be an artist. Usually, artists are formed at a young age when their parents decide to invest in their skills. Typical weekend lessons in the arts for the youth are at Php 1,500 per session, ranging from 9-12 weekend sessions. Excluded here are the art materials, musical instruments, or whatever equipment one has to buy to make the artwork. Those cost thousands of pesos, plus maintenance/repair over the years. An art course at a local college is an additional investment, costing hundreds of thousands, if the student is not a scholar or was not given any school allowance. And finally, freelance work would not be kick started without the investment in new equipment and sample art works for portfolio’s sake. In short, it costs a whole lot of money to be an artist. Because of this, it also costs much more to buy or have access to their art.

In an ideal world, art is for everyone. It is wrong to discriminate against those who are naturally gifted, but it is a fact that, gifted or not, the underprivileged lacks representation in the artistic academic field, and ultimately, in the creative industry. This leads to the reality that, in the current world we are living in, art is a privilege. Since art takes a lot of time and resources to make, more often than not, it is produced to make money or to gain patronage by being exposed to as much audience as possible.

“Because art takes time to make, its makers are often those with a luxury of time”

(Mishra & Galchen, 2016)

Artists are trained about form, style, and technique. But because of art’s commercial value, they are also influenced on the artistic content. They are taught to abide by certain templates so as to make their work “sellable”. These templates encompass values, beliefs, and aesthetics that are deemed pleasing and acceptable by the target market—the middle and, most especially, the upper class. This way, these social classes are given the power to dictate what is beautiful, from what is not. 

“Our elders had learned to always, always keep a finger on the pulse of the mass audience, or else risk career stagnation or worse. They might have welcomed a system that rewarded them with “independence,” but the question must be asked: independence from what, or whom?”

(David, 2015)

Their collective opinions are what also influence the artistic representations of those outside their realm, despite their limited knowledge on the world beyond theirs. There is no artistic freedom, as the “freedom” is bound by certain norms and predispositions. Because only a few can afford art, those few are given the power to influence its content. They are also the ones who can judge it according to their preferences. This way, one can say that art becomes a medium of cultural, political and social conversation of the higher classes. But, in the perspective of the artist and the critics, one can also say that art is a medium for communication with those in power.

“Opinions, in so far as it concerns the communicative saturation of the Same, carried over a space of discourse that only requires discussion based on commonality.”

(Mendizabal, 2019)

In today’s society, for a decent conversation to happen, people must be on the same page. It is discriminatory, in a way that they will not be automatically engaged, if the ones they are talking to do not share similar views or are not from the same social status. People like talking about similarities, but they hate having to confront differences. This is why criticism, let alone negative criticism, is usually frowned upon, especially in art—a platform that is considered by many as a “safe space” for freedom of expression. Don’t get me wrong, people love expressing their opinions. They like having the space to let out their personal judgments. This is why social media is so popular. However, social media, according to Mendizabal, “has further obscured opinion into the basic unit of its communicative neural network. It became a marketable product which further blurs its determinateness and further intensifies its commercialization (Mendizabal, 2019).”

But what does criticism supposedly contain that makes the higher classes frown upon it?

“Critique must constitute judgment and comprehension as practices that arrive at Truth.”

(Mendizabal, 2019)

Criticism begins with the experience of art. For film, in particular, this experience is not only limited to the audiovisual encounter of the medium. The kind of experience required entails a radical encounter of something beyond the Same (Mendizabal, 2019). This encounter with the truth of the art form must be full enough to push the viewer into asking questions beyond one’s personal principality. Criticism is not classified as part of popular culture because it requires so much more than just viewing and reviewing the art. It asks for energy and effort from the critic to seek beyond the aesthetics for the deeper meaning and truth behind the art, that is rooted in its historical, political, social, and personal context. To be a critic, one must be overwhelmed and submerged by the art in such a way that s/he is pushed towards starting a conversation about what the entirety of the art intends to tackle. This conversation, unlike reviews, are not limited to the fetishism of aesthetics, but rather, it aims to unravel the political and economic side of art—one that is not talked about, because it brings out the negativity that is rooted from the overall oppression, misrepresentation, and exploitation of the proletariat.

“Among students of culture, the body is an immensely fashionable topic, but it is usually the erotic body, not the famished.”

(Pangilinan, 2014)

Criticism will talk about what is good about the elements of an artwork. However, it will also tackle everything that it stands for. It refuses to discuss norms and preconceived biases towards content, but rather, it challenges the templates of art and seeks to look at the famished and impoverished aspect of it. Criticism proffers discourse beyond an elaboration of the writer’s personal responses (David, 2015). But above all, criticism aims to push for a discourse spoken in the language that those in power could understand.

Given this, we can conclude that criticism is a form of activism. It is a social responsibility that should be taught and invested on. Words are very powerful tools for change. Policies and laws are rooted from words which are, then, rooted from discourse between those in power. Ideally, the duty of those in power is to listen to the plight of the masses who gave them their power. But this is not the case. There is a social language barrier that shuts them off to embrace commonality within their class. Through criticism of art, the critics will be able to speak in the language that the higher classes would appreciate and listen to. It would, initially, open their eyes to a new and deeper experience of the art. Once they reach this brand new level of appreciation, they will be engaged enough to know more about the art, what it represents, and the social forces that brought about its making. 

“There is significant investment in the production of art, but no substantial effort to sustain critical practice and the necessary interlocution to the exceptional aspirations of both artists and audiences as well as to their many productive imperfections.”

(Flores, 2014)

We invest in the artists but not in the critics maybe because we are afraid of the idea of change. In the recent 2020 Netflix hit, Enola Holmes, a quote about politics went viral:

Photo from Netflix’s Enola Holmes
(Source URL: Facebook post by Joseph Justin)

Education is necessary for one to be able to think beyond one’s personal opinions. With education comes privilege. Maybe society does not invest so much in critics because the thought of us confronting our own social classes and our own privileges to pave the way to the inclusion and uplifting of the marginalized scares us. We are so comfortable in our current world that we refuse to question it and engage in a conversation about what might possibly change it. It is not so much that criticism entails a degree of art study and appreciation that is beyond the understanding of a simple mind, but rather, the simple mind refuses to expound on its potential because it is afraid of what its power would bring. It is afraid of seeing the fullness of the Truth in the art because it knows that, once it sees it, there is no going back. After all, there are so many injustices and discrimination rooted from power play that are happening in the world right now. And if we are still not angry, what is blinding us?

Criticism is already powerful, in itself. How much more powerful will criticism be if geared towards something as equally powerful as the arts? This is why the term “starving artist” is popular, because society refuses to give art the value that it deserves. It might end up being too powerful. But words cannot be silenced forever. There will come a time wherein society will be ready to invest in words that will allow them to have an encounter with the Truth. It is inevitable that society will slowly open to change. The question is, by the time that it is ready for change, will we have invested enough in individuals whose experiences with the Truth will allow them to see past current realities and, at the same time, are courageous enough to recognize their duty to talk about it?

References:

David, J. (2015). Pinoy Film Criticism: A Lover’s Polemic. Retrieved 4 October 2020, from http://themanilareview.com/issues/view/pinoy-film-criticism-a-lovers-polemic

Lumbera, B., Deocampo, N., Flores, P., Pangilinan, C., Tiongson, N., Tolentino, R., & Gueb, E. (2014). On Poetics and Practice of Film Criticism in the Philippines [In person].

Mendizabal, Adrian D. “Transforming Film Criticism into a Militant Practice.”Strike II, 15 Dec. 2019, http://strk2.com/2019/12/transforming-film-criticism-into-a-militant-practice/

Mishra, P., & Galchen, R. (2016). Is the Idea of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ a Sign of Social Privilege?. Retrieved 4 October 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/books/review/is-the-idea-of-art-for-arts-sake-a-sign-of-social-privilege.html

SM Cinema to open more IMAX theaters; to go digital. (2011). Retrieved 4 October 2020, from https://www.bworldonline.com/content.php?id=29966

Westhale, J. (2015). On The Privilege And Assholery Of Being An Artist. Retrieved 4 October 2020, from https://medium.com/the-establishment/a-room-of-my-own-on-writing-privilege-and-the-assholery-of-artistry-71cb3ba2c435

Whitlock, M. (2020). Student art: only for the privileged few?. Retrieved 4 October 2020, from https://cherwell.org/2020/05/29/student-art-only-for-the-privileged-few/

Categories
Film 270 Post

Week 3: Consequences of thought

Education has always been a privilege. It should be a right, but it’s not—at least, not yet. A quick glimpse at the history of education will show us that, in the past, it was given exclusively to male heirs of the wealthy to train them in medicine, law, and religious doctrines. The working class could not access education, partly because of the cost, but mostly due to the fact that they do not have the luxury of time to spare outside the workforce. They could not study because they had to prioritize working to put food on their tables. To add to this, there was racial discrimination and sexism. Women were not allowed to study because they were only expected to stay at home and handle the household. If they were allowed to pursue careers, it would be in vocational courses, such as dressmaking. To generalize, an educated person in the past was a rich, white, male. In the context of the Philippines, it was a wealthy mestizo

The same is true for the study of art. For centuries, it has been limited only to the educated and the wealthy. When art was introduced to the educational system, it was mostly only limited to the enhancement of the skill. Eventually, most prominently in the late 1800s, critical thinking and interpretation were considered as important factors in art education. By then, scholars not only looked at art, but they also studied, interpreted, and transcribed the experience of it. For centuries, there was a greater sum of laborers, not thinkers. People were forced to work, not think. There was no room for thought, let alone for criticism and proper discourse between the classes and the sexes. Only the privileged could think, granting them power to decide what is wrong from right. In the perspective of art, the privileged decided on what to look at, how to look at art, and more importantly, how to interpret and criticize it.

Nowadays, the circumstances have progressed a little bit, as both men and women are given equal access to education. Education is still primarily for those who can afford it, but with the development of technology, everything has been widely accessible, including education and, more so, art. In this digital age, almost everyone has smartphones. With one click, a user can view any painting, watch any film, and listen to any music. With another click, s/he can read what it’s about, the different reviews on it, its history, significance, and basically almost everything about everything. Freedom of information eventually leads to freedom of the mind. Now that information is accessible, there is more room for opinions, especially when it comes to art.  A.O. Scott says in Better Living Through Criticism that,

“…the universal capacity of our species—to find fault. And also to bestow praise. To judge. That’s the bedrock of criticism.”

(Scott 2016, p.10)

We are intellectual and, therefore, judgmental beings, whether immersed in the educational system or not. Technology has provided us an avenue for expressing our thoughts. We have become more courageous with our opinions because we are equipped with knowledge that we can so easily get. There is a downside of this influx, however. Scott further states that,

“There is no room for doubt and little time for reflection as we find ourselves buffeted by a barrage of sensations and a flood of opinion.”

(Scott, 2016, p.12)

With everyone having a say in everything, and with all these opinions publicly expressed, consumers of mass media will end up trying to digest so much, leaving them without thoughts of their own. What is worse than this is that they will try to digest as much information as they could by scanning quickly, without diving into the details. This is a nightmare, not just for critics, but to any individual who wishes for her/his work to be taken seriously and not just be “passed by”. A work of art is made with passion, skill, and awareness towards political, social, and personal surroundings. Beyond being seen, it is also experienced and studied because it holds a great deal of value beyond the physical aspect. With the experience of art comes the freedom of the mind to a multitude of thoughts and emotions. And, as Scott pleasantly put it, “it is the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom” (Scott, 2016, p.13). 

Criticism, as the great Pauline Kael worded it, “is written by the use of intelligence, talent, taste, emotion, education, imagination, and discrimination” (Kael, 1994, p.231) However, at the age of information overload, where fast facts are the preference, people have several tendencies towards handling information such as criticism. The first tendency is that the consumers will just take the collective opinion and adapt it as their own. Say, for a new film, people would quickly scour the internet for movie reviews. If you notice the layout of most of the review sites, they are in a format wherein one could only see the summary first or the first couple of sentences, plus the “star rating”. If the viewer wants to read more, that is the only time they can choose to expand the review to see the rest of the article. This is because people prefer fast facts. They want information instantly such that they end up not thinking anymore, but just consuming. If they see that the majority of the reviewers like the movie, they decide instantly to see it. They do not bother asking the question “Why?”. The collective opinion matters so much that if a minority disagrees with this, they end up being “cancelled” or dismissed. The mob mentality is too strong that individual opinions that are unique or thoroughly processed are rare. This leads me to the discussion of the second tendency of people, which is to choose the convenient opinion, one that is not that difficult to read.

In the context of the Philippines, we Filipinos are not exactly leading globally when it comes to reading comprehension. We are, of course, not alone in this. But, this signifies that the greater majority choose to just let information pass by their eyes and they are not really inclined to process it. Good criticism is rich in information and discernment. It is filled with educational quality references and associations. Back in the olden days, when only the privileged examined art, most people would turn away from art because they regard it as elitist. They could not understand it because they were not taught how. I would say that there is not much difference with our circumstances nowadays because most people refuse to discuss art because they regard it as something that is way past their understanding. They would settle for more simple and short criticisms simply because they are more convenient. There is little to no push for a higher regard to the importance of understanding art because, until now, it is still considered as a privilege. This is a challenge for modern day critics—how can people be encouraged to read past the simple one-liner judgements? How can they be driven to want more? In the age where everything you need to know is being fed to you, how can one be encouraged to question further what one is consuming?

This is where education plays a large role. Scott says,

“That everyone is a critic means, or should mean, that we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us.”

(Scott, 2016, p.13)

It is easy to express an opinion, but it takes a whole lot of effort to express a knowledgeable one. Idealistic as this may seem, when everyone is given access to education wherein they are encouraged to be open-minded towards different understandings of art, they will be able to produce opinions that will help in the deconstruction, exploration, and enhancement of its experience. 

“Part of me wants to reach those who aren’t so cinephillic, to try and spread enthusiasm for movies that may not otherwise get their deserved attention.”

 (Cook, 2013, p.7)

Good criticism does not just inform, it opens up doors for a greater appreciation, and even improvement, of art. A work of art itself is a piece of criticism, according to Scott (Scott, 2016, p. 18). Art does not just exist, it evolves. It changes according to the taste and preferences of each generation. It is also influenced socially and politically. Say, for example, movie remakes. A lot of people have been commenting that there are far too much movie remakes nowadays. The previous generations are angered because they do not like the classics or “originals” being touched. 

“Imitation is not the erosion of originality; it is the condition of originality.”

(Scott, 2016, p.20)

If one dives further, these remakes are products of criticism from the past and current generations. Some films, for instance, are being remade because they contain racism or discriminatory content that are highly unacceptable in today’s society which, thankfully, is beginning to not tolerate any form of discrimination. Movements for diversity and inclusivity for women and difference races are also being pushed, especially in the film industry. Nowadays, we have females being shown as “badass” characters, playing roles and doing stunts that only men did in the olden films. This is because a generation criticized those old works as not depicting the fullness and realness of what women are and what they can do. The minority is screaming loudly for its rights, and what used to be the majority is being forced to listen, despite their ignorance. 

“Every writer is a reader, every musician is a listener, driven by a desire to imitate, to correct, to improve, or to answer models before them.”

(Scott, 2016, p.19)

These movements of revising art forms are products of criticism of the old art which depicted life in older lenses. Artists are listening to their critics and changing the mistakes of their predecessors. The new art, which is a product of its own time, should also portray life according to its current lenses. There is a huge backlash and resistance, however, in this process of transforming art because some consumers of the old art are stuck in their principles from the past. Sadly, some of the members of the newer generations were also influenced to think via these old principles. The irony is, each generation criticizes art to the point of its transformation. But the generation who brought about changes are also the most resistant to the art’s new evolution. Criticism has evolved far from how it used to be. At this day and age, there is already a space for everyone to criticize art. There are also spaces for everyone to view each other’s opinions on art. This way, we influence one another. With the movement toward more accessible education for all, sooner or later the majority will be more motivated to refine their opinions and become better critics. And given that the consequence of criticism is change, the question is, are we ready to accept this change? Can we, as critics, accept the challenge to experience art through a new generation’s lens?

References:

Carlton, Genevieve. “A History Of Privilege In Higher Education | Bestcolleges”. Bestcolleges.Com, 2020, https://www.bestcolleges.com/blog/history-privilege-higher-education/.

“Film Criticism: The Next Generation”. XXXVIII, no. 2, Cineaste Magazine, 2013, https://www.cineaste.com/spring2013/film-criticism-the-next-generation. Accessed 27 Sept 2020.

Kael, P. (1994). I Lost It at the Movies: Film Writings, 1954-1965. Marion Boyars Publishers.

Scott. A.O. (2016). Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. Penguin Books.

Starkey, Joy. “History Of Art: A Degree For The Elite?”. The Guardian, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/jan/09/history-of-art-a-degree-for-the-elite.