From Bacharach in Bangkok
Philippine Star 10/24/05
The only book I stuffed into my backpack for last week's jaunt to Bangkok was Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema (Singapore: BigO Books, 2005). I'd had the book for months - with no less than acclaimed film director Lav Diaz delivering a copy to my house - and I'd promised myself to read it one blessedly free day, a day that just never came until last weekend.
Before he recently flew off with his family to North Carolina, I'd met Noel a couple of times, and he looked more to me like a Marine or a defensive lineman than a film critic - which only goes to show how rare and atypical real film critics are, that we haven't typecast them in the way professors, priests, and policemen generate caricatures in our heads. There are, indeed, very few of Noel's calling and caliber in our country (and now even he's gone out of it, albeit in just a physical way); whether for lack of time, education, or integrity, many "reviewers" here are really little more than publicists (which is why I decline, as a matter of personal policy, to review books; call this a book report). Noel wasn't even formally trained for film (heck, who is?) - he took up Legal Management in Ateneo, before doing an MBA at the University of Michigan in Dearborn and working as an officer of the Bank of the Philippine Islands.
But over the past decade or so, no one has written more knowledgeably, more consistently, and more passionately about Philippine cinema than Noel Vera. I know some people who share his passion and perhaps even his learning, but they don't write, not nearly as well as he does. Noel doesn't just live and breathe movies; he teaches them, teaches us about them, and brings the full armament of his considerable knowledge and his keenly refined preferences to bear on even the seemingly most insipid or inconsequential movie to turn it into a learning experience.
Here's Noel on Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Bubungang Lata (1999):
"Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman On A Tin Roof) isn't about films so much as it is about the people who make them. Not the directors or proucers or stars (as in Federico Fellini's 8 (sic), or Francois Truffaut's Day for Night) but the little people on the fringe... O'Hara works inthe neo-realist tradition of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini (a tradition Lino Brocka belonged to), but there's also a touch of gothic in him. He stages much of his story inside the Manila North Cemetery, a vast landscape of tombs and crosses and silently weeping angels, where most of his characters - so poor they can't afford a house - live. It's a marvelous visual conceit, a brilliant coup de theatre: crawling among the mausoleums and monuments of famous dead presidents and statesmen, O'Hara's little people struggle to survive."
Vera isn't just dropping names; he's locating a work and its director within a certain tradition, to which every work is, in a sense, responsible, and from which every work must also depart. Vera makes us aware of the long continuum and context of filmic thought and practice behind every new project, big or small. No matter how un-serious a movie may be - and we seem to have an inordinate number of these wala-lang productions, hatched on a toilet bowl with a storyline that could fit on the back of a bus ticket - Vera does it the ultimate courtesy of taking it seriously, dispensing praise and damnation with equal gusto and perspicacity. To Vera, the point of a review isn't to make or break a movie (wisely, because in this country, reviews don't seem to matter at the till); the point is to understand it, and by doing so, to understand ourselves.
You can't always agree with Noel's judgments, which is a sign that he must be doing something right, to have such firm opinions and preferences we can argue with. (The last time I looked, he was an active protagonist in online film forums, where he was taking and giving as much fire as a GI in Iraq.) For example, he makes all the right references to George Orwell, Jose Rizal, shoot-'em-up video games, and martial law when he discusses the otherwise brilliant Lav Diaz's Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (2002),without saying what to me seemed all too obvious - that it was overwrought and in parts boring, though doubtlessly important.
The book isn't justabout the strengths and weaknesses of individual Filipino movies. As the title suggests, it's a review of Philippine cinema as a whole, and Vera completes the picture by devoting useful and informative sections to film festivals, interviews with film personalities, reviews of plays, and Catholic films (e.g., movies about Christ). He has a very interesting list of the 13 most important Filipino films as of 2000 (his top three, in order: 1) Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos; 2) Insiang; 3) Kisapmata.) He takes a look across time periods and genres to discuss films about society, films about sex, films about Manila, and personal visions.
I do have a minor stylistic quibble: Vera (or his Singaporean editor) strangely chooses to italicize only Filipino titles - as in Init sa Magdamag - while leaving English titles in regular roman (such as The Kiss of the Spider Woman). Movies are movies in whatever language, and in my stylebook, their titles should all be italicized, the better to spot them on the page.
Noel's been invited to the Rotterdam International Film Festival to talk about a small group of Filipino films that he's written about. Whether we agree with his views and choices or not, we can only wish him well on his personal mission of sharing our filmic vision with the rest of the world.
Critic After Dark is available at Fully Booked, Power Plant Mall; the CCP Bookstore; Datelines Bookstore, Cubao; and Booktopia, Libis, Quezon City. Go pick up a copy and let Noel know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.