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You Say You Want a (Digital) Revolution?

19 Mar 2008

It is easy to understand why they call filmmaking the “new rock n’ roll.” Pinoys have been enamoured with Hollywood for more than half a century, but it is only in recent years that filmmaking has drawn this much interest from the youth. It is probably the “new rock n’ roll” in that many young filmmakers aspire for the usual life of fame, fortune and juvenile debauchery with the same wide-eyed innocence as the proverbial 90s garage band.

Which is to say that I think filmmaking today has become quite a popular option for artistically-inclined kids for some very wrong reasons.

Foremost, of course, is the myth that rockstardom is still possible at all in this godforsaken country of novelty songs, Hello Garci tapes, rotten politicians and backward-as-hell countryside. Gone are the days of superstars and The Pinoy Frank Sinatra or The Pinoy Karen Carpenter (she’s now in the public transport business), busy as we are with quarreling over the scraps left at the table of multinational corporations. The myth of the rockstar died with the breakup of the Eraserheads, that veritable 90s icon whose rise to national prominence practically captured the spirit of the generation. We dreamt it, we believed it, but this myth never survived.

What saddens us, therefore, that many young, aspiring filmmakers still buy this bullshit.

Many young filmmakers continue to aspire for fame and toiling in the digital realm, hoping to eventually break into the “big time” – pay a high price for their naivete, ultimately pawning their wide-eyed idealism at the altar of compromise. The best artistic minds are everday lost to advertising agencies, television sitcoms, and other commercial endeavors.

It saddens us, but at the same time, we fully understand. This bullshit has been thrown to us so long we now hardly smell the stench. In our current dispensation, art is just like any other commodity, like tourism, or domestic helpers, that the government can sell to foreigners at discounted rates. The prevailing philosophy in many of our local film festivals has always been to promote and recognize films of “world class quality,” whatever “world class” actually means. Following this philosophy, filmmakers only have to follow foreign trends and compete in “international standards” for fame and fortune to come their way.

But the E’heads never batted for “world class” approval (although they later took their fame too seriously, which may explain the band’s eventual anachronism and abrupt demise). Certainly, neither did Lino Brocka, who looked curious in his anti-Marcos barong he wore to the Cannes. Nor many others who survived the adolescent thrill of passing fame to become serious artists who mattered in their own country.

Brocka, on the other hand, was an extraordnary man of vision and integrity, and had the First Quarter Storm and the Martial Law for his political education. Today’s aspiring filmmakers surely have their own share of genius. But fact remains that Brocka’s generation of “dreamers” never had to put up with the thoroughgoing indoctrination into capitalist philosophy courtesy of the current mainstream multimedia.

Sure, today’s filmmakers are given enough elbow room to flex their creativity with digital technology. But the need for a sizeable audience for their works would necessitate thier assimilation into the putrid world of commercial distribution. More than a decade after the arrival of the first digital camera in the market, democratization has only gone so far as allowing for sleeker home movies and flashier audiovisual (school) reports.

Such is the prevailing “culture industry,” as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno put it in The Dialectic of Enlightenment over fifty years ago. For it is indeed an industry, a whole network of practices and customs designed to make us all feel better about our miserable, oppressed lives. When we see commercials on television proclaiming new technology which would enhance our lives — or make us better filmviewers or filmmakers — it certainly delivers. That is, as long as we do not deviate from its practices.

(This opens up a debate about movie piracy, which starts out innocently as a subversion of approved filmviewing practices, only to eventually reinforce capitalism itself. In this social order there’s always something in the market for everyone, even those incapable of buying original DVDs.)

The very idea of democratization (everybody can be a filmmaker with a DigiCam) as marketed by the mutinationals (Sony, et al) would lead us into believing that everything — every image, every moment — can be worth capturing in megapixels, even the most private moments (think those video scandals). A clearly captured clip of artistas cavorting can be as powerful as images of, say, a violent dispersal of a workers’ picketline. Or a home wedding video as potent as a video exposing government corruption. In the capitalist marketplace, all images and ideas have equal weight, whoever morally repugnant and materially oppressive half of them really are.

This “de-moralization” of cinema manifests in most inocuous ways for skilled filmmakers: the lure of advertising. So inocuous, in fact, that it is usually passed off as the most natural thing. Take, for instance, the UP College of Fine Arts’ Visual Communications program, which in actual practice mainly promotes the sort of visual communication commonly found in advertising.

Horkheimer and Adorno explained the raison d’etre of advertising in a capitalist society: “Advertising is its [culture industry] elixir of life. But as its product never fails to reduce to a mere promise the enjoyment which it promises as a commodity, it eventually coincides with publicity, which it needs because it cannot be enjoyed. In a competitive society, advertising performed the social service of informing the buyer about the market; it made choice easier and helped the unknown but more efficient supplier to dispose of his goods.”

Of course, we don’t see Adorno and Horkeimer’s ideas competing in the “marketplace of ideas,” getting equal airtime as the countless advertisements promoting the “better life.” What our young filmmakers constantly see and buy is the promise of a “rock n’ roll” career, bereft of the stifling obligations of social responsibility and enlightenment.

Given this scenario, then, can we still proclaim “digital revolution”?

We submit the answer to be a precarious yes, not only because despite the temptation to sellout digital filmmakers continue to increase in number, but also because the technology has presented for many of those already going against the grain of dominant culture a unique opportunity to change the practice of filmmaking in the country. One can even venture to say that a social-political movement outside cinema gaining ground would compel many filmmakers to confront social realities from which this social-political movement sprang. Thus, we have an ouvure of provocative filmmakers, from the Red brothers, to Lav Diaz, to people like Khavn, confronting themes of poverty and oppression, in historical contexts or present-day scenarios. We also have a host of young audio-visual groups from Southern Tagalog Exposure to Sine Patriyotiko (SIPAT) with activist agenda and their own system of bootleg distribution.

Khavn said in an interview with SINEWAYA that filmmakers like him would not have been able to make films at all had it not been for digital technology. Which only means that technology per se has never been the enemy of the artist. Its development only gave the filmmaker better tools with which to create. Seen in this light, we realize that “digital revolution” will not really free our sights from dominant cinema, the “revolution” in it an anticipation of more sweeping revolutions to come.# Kenneth Roland A. Guda

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 08 Nov 2009 1:40 pm

    I am amazed by your vision of cinema. Intense and political! your arguments run from rock n’ roll to capitalism to filmmaking to advertising to filmmaking, a rare treat indeed. I am trying to piece together the points you have raised, and i am sensing that you focused on the emerging local digital filmmaking movement. This was written last year, and i think i can sense a criticism on Video blogging when you mention about the ‘democratization’ and that everyone can be a filmmaker which i think should be gnawed upon even more.

    But I tell you, yes, everyone is a filmmaker. I can even reduce it by saying “Every [contemporary] man is a film camera. (Kino Eye)” this was the very idea of a famous Russian director from the Soviet Montage film movement in 1920s, Dziga Vertov, whose philosophy of man is highly linked with cinema. He said: “In the face of the machine we are ashamed of man’s inability to control himself, but what are we to do if we find the unerring ways of electricity more exciting than the disorderly haste of active people…I am an eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, I am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see”. Vertov wasn’t really into capitalism when he said this. On the contrary, he saw cinema as a tool and our eye itself.

    We must also note that like many art (literature, painting, architecture, etc.) cinema is historically contingent and ever evolving medium. In 1929, the coming of sound, many filmmakers and theorist declared that cinema is dead. Sound is somewhat alien to many silent filmmakers that time, they considered it as an intruder to their quiet little haven. However, we see the 1930 and 40s, the transition period, as the zenith of cinema not the death of cinema (if that happens, we won’t be blogging about it at all hehe!). 1930-40s is a period in cinema when the greatest films were made, Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941), La Grande Illusion (Renoir, 1937), The Rules of the Game (Renoir, 1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946), Children of Paradise (Carne, 1945). This films have made a great impact on the rest of the history of film. The style of each one, The Rules of the Game and Citizen Kane’s deep space cinematography, La Grande Illusion’s mobility of the camera, Children of Paradise’s mise-en-scene decor and historical significance (Carne filmed it during the Nazi Occupation in France, such a violent time to film a masterpiece!), have influenced dozens of filmmakers and have established film studies itself.

    in line with the central topic, that of digital filmmaking, we can approach it not as a political agenda of sorts, but as a way of comparing it with the COMING OF SOUND in 1929. It is THE NEXT FILM MEDIUM, and we see its existence on many films both foreign and local and it is evident that it will flourish in the years to come. When Abbas Kiarostami started using the digital camera after filming The Wind will Carry Us (1999), he declared that its much a better camera than the celluloid one, and many critics were ‘shocked’ by this declaration. This shift of medium is also observable in many directors like David Lynch in his Inland Empire (2006) and Brillante Mendoza in his Masahista (2005). Kiarostami used the digital camera because, he said, it is the new realism in cinema attributed to its closeness to us, audiences, that, in line with your democratization argument, we can document daily life with it. Lynch used it for psychological effects, a purely stylistic cause. Mendoza used it to add atmospheric/mood effects.

    We can say that the use of the digital medium is itself a manifestation of a new realism in cinema (with Kiarostami), and more importantly, a stylistic choice of the filmmaker. I cannot see how this medium can be used by young filmmakers to propel themselves to fame. If I am a ‘young filmmaker’ i would still use the old ones, the celluloid camera, because of its grainy effect which can add ‘pa-pogi’ epek sa mga judges ng film festivals.

    In line with your attack to advertising, if this advertising concerns the publicity of either a mainstream film or an independent film, I say that leave it that way. This is how the film industry works ever since cinema was born in 1895. Without advertising, no people would enter on nickelodeons (old movie theaters during the 1910s) to watch screwball comedies and silent melodramas. One has to be informed to gather audiences, and what is cinema without our faithful audiences. What is a film industry without a proper information dissemination scheme, for as we all know, advertising is a form of information dissemination. if we are concern with the quality and accuracy of the information, then it is a question of value, another topic we are not concerned with.

    Finally, you mention of ‘world class standards’ to attain in order for our local filmmakers to attain fame and distinction. And I say this, such ‘standards’ exist, we call them not ‘world class standards’ but ‘film studies’ per se. If, say, we put Tokyo Story (JAPAN, Ozu, 1953) as a primary example, Western film scholars discovered the film in the 1970s and it is hinted as the one that opened the window to Yasujiro Ozu’s filmmography to be studied in depth. Every film, wherever it originates, has a focal point: the camera and the techniques. And this techniques are learned from film schools, or if lucky, from self experimentation. What unites every film is the camera, and film theorists and historians are experts on every aspect of the camera, how it can transform a series of ordinary moving pictures into a remarkable story, how it can distort reality, how it produces ideas and meanings. Film theorists read every film that way, and not only ‘that’ way but many ways. One can engage an ideological study on a satirical film, to explore its themes and motifs. One can engage a formal study focusing on the technicalities of the film (mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, sound). Such ‘world class standards’ are not standards at all but ‘analytical point of references’. Say, how one film differs from another film, how their camera works look the same but function in different ways.

    That’s all… Hehe! I am going to blog this, if you don’t mind.

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