Film and Ideology

This note is something I used for my culminating lecture on an Introduction to Film subject I handled last semester. I apologize for the lack of citation, but I have noted from who does the ideas I mentioned came from.

The semester started by looking into the Feature-Length Film as our object of study, with the understanding that film is, by function, a medium that works in producing illusions. Specifically, we looked into how the mainstream film industry, modeled from Hollywood’s framework despite having relative variations, develops its products and practices throughout the years of its existence. 

We have established the following, at least in the context of the Philippines:

    • That the Classical Hollywood Narrative, along with its conventions and styles, is the dominant film language in the Philippines, with years of backwardness in its developments. 
    • The Classical Hollywood Narrative imported the practice of involving genre into its framework. Set of conventions which makes it easy for the audience to determine the narrative that they are viewing.
    • With regards to style, since the Philippine Films has adapted the Classical Hollywood Narrative, it imported also its concern over realism. Realism brings forth emphasis with coherence both in mise en scene and seamless editing. 
    • Realism is a vital part of Classical Hollywood Narrative. Realism lessens the tension between the audience and the film product. Adherence to realism erases traces of syntheticity and of being constructed. Realism is often presented in two ways: mise-en-scene and dialogue. 
    • In the country, we have also adapted the studio system of production – a manifestation of the industrial nature of filmmaking – wherein a film is not just singularly authored but is produced in an assembly-line like way, that it goes from various aspects of production (Creatives, Talents, Logistics, and Finance) to distribution (film studios, distribution companies, platforms, brokers, etc) and exhibition (commercial cinemas, specialized theaters, streaming platforms, etc.).
    • The Philippine film industry has also imported the practice of Star System, which assumes that a film’s success is largely due to the following of the actors that played in it. An actor which makes a film that becomes either box office or critical hit may be considered a star. The star system is a mode of valorization wherein the film’s value is determined by either who appears on the screen, and such, the production is planned with the actor at the center. The same kind of valorization seems to apply too with film directors, but it is seldom that audience identification happens with film directors, which makes it hard to determine whether film directors actually contribute to the “star factor” of a film. 

Such is common practice with industrial, and even small-scale independent filmmaking that it almost “disappears” in the film product. Our craving for narrative and seamless storytelling, realistic dialogue and performances, the fulfillment of spectacular expectations from specific genres, now appears to be natural. But cravings, like desire, are learned. Nothing is natural about these desires of ours for a Hollywood-style narrative in cinema. We became receptive to films which are similar to dominant practices because precisely we are thought to view cinema in this way. To look for films these things, and not the other. This development of our desire for a Hollywood-like cinema came from decades of our practice in watching films. And from these practices, ideological mechanisms are produced, developed and reproduced. 

The production of desire is a practice that happens within the realm of ideology. Cinema is just one of its mechanism to reproduce desire, as what Slavoj Zizek said: cinema teaches you how to desire. Hinting that the role of ideology in Film in the formation of our desire is more in the way it operations than its content. 

To expound further on ideology, I want us to look into the work of Louis Althusser, a philosopher whose lifework has been to describe and make sense of ideology, a formerly phantastic notion, within the realm of material reality. Althusser forwarded two theses on Ideology:

    • Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.
    • Ideology has a material existence.

The first thesis can be our working definition of ideology moving forward. 

The first thesis implies a sensuousness in the definition: we can refer to the word “imaginary” in the way psychoanalysis uses it. That is, in the realm of images. Using this definition, ideology is then an apparent relationship. What faces you even before “real conditions of existence.” However, due to ideology’s dependency on “disappearance” for it to work successfully, we have always accessed ideology through what Jacques Lacan, coming from Karl Marx, as a symptom. 

Slavoj Zizek defined symptom as “a particular element which subverts its own universal foundation, a species subverting its own genus.” In line with what Greame Turner has identified in his definition of ideology: “Ideology works to obscure the process of history so that it appears natural, a process we cannot control and which it seems churlish to question.”

In our last discussion on stars, we refer to mythologies in the terms of Claude Levi-Strauss as “were used to deal with the contradictions in experience, to explain the apparently inexplicable, and to justify the inevitable.” Myths work to make us believe that there is something within our world which is “natural” and therefore something which cannot change. This does not refer to any point of organic origins, but natural in a metaphysical way. Myth, as part of the discourses, is just one way in which ideology works. Zizek refers to Myths as “ideological Universals”: notions that include specific cases that break its own unity. Most of what we determine as “common knowledge”, “common sense” at present can be said as ideological. However, what we refer to as “common knowledge” is only common in so far as the conditions for the said, “knowledge” (including its learning) is met.  It is in a similar manner that cinema works exactly like ideology: what film techniques in classical Hollywood narrative do is to make it seem that “techniques” are not there. We can say that a good film is that film which erases cinema and leaves out the narrative for you to remember. 

The proof of the existence of an ideology, its symptom, can be found in these instances of the utterance of “nature” or “common sense”. Our social practices bear with its ideological content: going to churches, attending school, finding our means of entertainment. Contrary to what is commonly thought in relation to ideology, it is not all ingrained deep. Most ideological manifestations are often on the nose. 

Althusser identified what he calls as Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA), in contrast with Repressive State Apparatuses (RSA), as means where we can validate the existence of ideology. Belonging to this ISAs are cultural ISAs such as cultural institutions, artists, etc; educational ISAs; religious ISAs to name a few. ISAs reproduces dominant ideologies through the products of its specific institutions. Cinema, belonging to the complex of cultural and business ISAs, more often than not reproduces the dominant ideologies. However, looking at ISAs dialectically, it is also seen that these are also sites wherein resistance to dominating systems is expressed either in a manner that is fully militant or in a negotiated manner. 

It can be observed with the deployment of film techniques. A study by Robert Stam and Louise Spence provides an introduction in the way Colonialism and Racism are deployed through film techniques in classical Hollywood films. They emphasized, however, that the colonialist images in cinema did not begin on Film but rather “it is rooted in a vast colonial intertext, a widely disseminated set of discursive practices.” (Stam & Spence, Colonialism, Racism and Representation). Some examples they made is with casting: the presence or absence of African Americans in films which context should have their presence or absence. 

In the Philippines, colonial imagery can be seen in the way we recognize who should be on screens. Despite the overpowering presence of Malayan or Indonesian qualities in our populace, most Filipino films in the early days are populated with images of Mestizas and Mestizos. Such practices persist up to this day.

What Althusser refers to as “real conditions of existence” is derived from the dialectics between the Economic Base (the dominating mode of production) and the superstructure (the set of culture and politics). The mode of production, in the dialectical materialist understanding, is a social relation. It determines the place of each individual in accordance with the way society organizes them within itself. In Althusser’s historical understanding, the mode of production in 20th century Europe is dominantly capitalist. We can, therefore, say that most of the films produced in Europe over the last century bear with it either practices or belief relevant to the maintenance of the dominating order, or expressions of resistance against it. 

To situate the Philippines’ economic base, it is important to look into its history to determine at what point has it developed in the present. Our developments from the Feudal mode of production from the Colonial Times to the Imperialist plunder during the 20th century to the present provides the Philippines with a very specific development in its conditions of existence. While we adopt the capitalist system in the city centers, the vast majority of the islands are still working under feudal ownership whose compradors are also complicit with imperialist interests. Amado Guerrero from the 1960s has rightfully identified the development in the mode of production in the middle of the 20th century as semifeudal and semicolonial. Since the country is running in the same objective condition economically, it has also affected the superstructure of our country greatly. 

As a direct correspondence with the semifeudal and semicolonial realities, Philippine Cinema has been founded also in the same vein of conditions. Early film studios are founded by Land-owning people, and as such, running like feudal lands. Issues of delayed and below living wages are of a great concern in the Film Industry in the 60s which led to a massive Filipino Film Workers’ Strike. The strike came alongside the Philippines’ development towards more radical movements such as the Diliman Commune and the First Quarter Storm. These developments in the history of the city center bookended what was considered as the Golden Age of Philippine Cinema.

If we are to reconsider the films being made by those in the foundation of Philippine Cinema in the light of its ideological function, nothing can be clearer in its semifeudal and semicolonial character than LVN’s first film, Giliw Ko (1939), where we see an obvious preference of the then-new elite with the American way of life over the Spanish legacy, but are both depicted in a light and positive way as if the colonization did not take place. 

In a more recent example, we can see more imperialist pandering in films such as Heneral Luna (2015). If we are to see it in its entirety, the film was never about a nation but its doubt of it. Heneral Luna panders over its brand of humanism (which is just postmodern cynicism coated in words like “humans” and “nature”, hence, a directly ideological stance). But as if it’s not enough to transmit the film’s cynicism and defeatism by just depicting the humanistic errs of each character and pointing the fingers back to ourselves, the film sought validation of its views from Luna’s enemies: America. The merry drunk Caucasians on the pseudo-interview scenes, in the end, are depicted as though they are the only professionals of war between the Filipinos and Americans, thus, it was never complete without sharing five cents from them. After all, the Filipinos are depicted as traitors in this film, therefore, not one word is to be trusted.

In these kinds of dialogue between film and ideology that we try to make sense of a social ideological development we call nationalism. A nation is quite vague, but its existence is within establishing a community formed on a basis of a certain commonality (either a common language, history, ethnicity, etc).  At one point, establishing a nation helped emancipate the oppressed and the colonized towards their own liberation against their oppressors. The concept of a nation helped imagine a scope outside the bounds of one’s limited world. It is in such imagination that Benedict Anderson referred to this idea of a nation as an Imagined Community. 

In film, such imagination also takes place. Some of us call these stereotypes if the imaginations seem to us quite absurd or just hasty. Stereotypes in film help the narrative unfold easier by establishing lesser effort for characterization by not considering the supposed complexity of human identity. In the practice of cinema, stereotypes have been domains of symbolic domination of the powerful over a specific community’s discourse. In our case, as in Heneral Luna or Giliw Ko, it is their discourse, funded by landed millionaires, imagining us – all of us – in a frame which is still contended, but is claimed to be real. 

The dialogue between film and ideology brings us back to the generic function of Cinema’s social practice to produce illusions as a point of synthesis. While we aspire to access what is real, we also get to acknowledge that reality is more often than not, constructed by various agents, and thus, not a homologous space. Ideology is also contended: in the multitude of contradicting thoughts, which one should dominate? And it is within this field of contention that the acknowledgment of cinema as illusion is important: it isn’t a matter of recognizing whether what we see is real or not, but whether or not should we enjoy the illusions that are presented to us, or should we create our own. 

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