“Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.”—Pauline Kael
There is what appears to be a crisis in the arts, in the realm of cinema, that seems to be bothering a number of people. It began from a website that freely ranks films according to a standard that while many of us, including this critic, are not aware of, may exist. Which brings us to the next question: does a critic have to explicate his standards? Yes and No. Some feel strongly about setting up a framework from which the reader can understand more the position of the criticism—its delimitations. The rest of us believe the elements we highlight, the facets we underscore give us away and our theoretical tendencies. Our prose becomes our standard.
When the furor reached me, the discussions had already reached the Fifth Fire alarm, which by Philippine standard requires some 20 fire trucks to douse the flame eating up homes and god forbid, critics sleeping in their homes and studios of filmmakers out in the field shooting their magnum opus. So there, it is pretty obvious I make light of the brouhaha (suddenly I miss dear old Frank Mallo). There is no crisis and seeing many familiar names humoring each other in the ether, these conflicting emotions regarding film criticism shall never kill cinema nor will it give rise to darling art films. What it will do is to convince us that, despite the continued killings of journalists and innocent bystanders, writing continues. Reckless writing that has no regard for rubrics in good essay writing. Independent writing that is wayward and fierce.
If no priest has a monopoly of the Holy Spirit, then no writer has a monopoly of film criticism. And, lest it be forgotten, a proprietary right to a theory.
We need all kinds of criticisms as we need all forms of perspectives. The critical number of critics or writers who feel they are critics is important for it assures us that in the population, there is one bound to be unafraid, a free spirit. I go back to my favorite critic (who is also the most opinionated), Pauline Kael who has been quoted saying: “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information.” Again, the critics of the critics will ask: who are the critics?
Allow me to philosophize and go back to one of the greatest polymaths, Aristotle. He is said to have said these lines (which have been quoted and requoted various ways): “There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” Using this wisdom, we can say, a critic is one who does something, says something, and is something. These are traits found in all of us. We all have the abilities to critique.
Amidst the debates, one question, not existential but real, has surfaced: Where are the critics? Where are we indeed amidst the accusation that there are individuals who are “non-critics” because the “legit” ones are nowhere. Did we go advertising, as Pauline Kael in her quotes wickedly implies?
There is a grain of truth in that accusation. In the gaps created by the silence of those we think ought to know and ought to teach us, certainly voices will seep in. New authorities, if you may, are born. Is this wrong? Not at all. Counterpoint values, to borrow the words of sociologists, are necessary in the hearing of values—so that we may know what the people out there are thinking, feeling.
And out there is an important direction insofar as the question of where the critics are. I could speak for the critics I know and I am not pertaining only to the members of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino of which I am long a member. I talk of the many other critics out there in colleges and universities, in small provincial papers. In the regions. At the peripheries.
Critics are not only those who write online in flashy postings and murderous memes. Critics are teachers of Humanities and Social Studies. Where they are found in distant, isolated barangay high schools, then we thank our gods that somehow some of our poor students who would never hear of Tarkovsky and Kidlat Tahimik could learn how cinema can be useful in classrooms.
As for me, I share a feeling of candor that soon my use of the English language in a formal broadsheet may be irrelevant. But I am unfazed. There are, as with other film critics who have columns on media, societies, politics and cultures and who worship at the shrine of anthropology, more avenues for film criticism. This is film education.
As a film educator, I talk, not write, among teachers, not to teach them but to share with them the gospel of Kael, which is not taught in schools, that films are not all about moral lessons. And neither are they about actors and celebrity directors. There are aspects like editing and sound. And cultures in cinemas. The tyranny of technologies. The problem of the nation in films. And so on. Still out there, I am with regional filmmakers in small film festivals with other critics and artists passing judgment on the good films. We make sure we choose the right winners and come up with lucid reasons for our decisions because fair judgment is sustainable film education. If there is time, we engage the filmmakers and the public in a discussion, away from the more vociferous urban tastemakers. And like in Campbell’s monomyth, we go back to our cities and charming offices heroes, with the boon to share with our own limited public.
Image credits: Jimbo Albano