For A Theory of Movie-going?

Last saturday, April 27, 2019, a concern over the current film industry’s overproduction of films was raised by Prof. Nick Deocampo on his talk on the Boom-and-Bust pattern of Philippine Film Economy, at the UP Film Institute. The concern centers on the concept of “demand”, something the Boom-and-Bust, being the liberal economic model that it is, seem to cover a lot. (Overproduction, i.e., we produce a lot of films which a few to none has seen).

But “demand” in any sense seem to be ghastly, more on the discussion of film. Can one really account on any film’s demand? If we quantify the list of top-selling films for the past 20 years, would it account to any fixed notion of “demand”? Can a “demand” for a specific film be established in the first place?

The notion of “demand”, in classical discussion of it in market economy, seem to center a lot of its decisions on the consumer. Consumer demand, as it turns out on recent expositions made, seem to be less concerned with what the consumers actually want. In a sense, what the consumer want is the Lacanian real for market economists. It’s that impossibility. That to get close to it, you’d only appeal to its symptoms, and not to its actuality. These symptoms can come in a form of survey, result of focus group discussions, or whatever quantitative research output economists and market researchers use.

Consumer demand, or at least the data of it, seem to be more synthetic than we can accept. It is a ghost from a community ghost story which we believe in strongly,despite only hearing it from someone, or only seeing things which are like it. Especially for a marginalized commodity as film — a commodity with very little use-value — producers and film marketers oftentimes use a lot of mechanisms to generate or conjure, to be consistent with our gothic metaphors, demand.

The hot topic of the past days, Avengers: Endgame, did conjure this ghost demand, but it does so in a very long process. Often times this could be mistaken as an “organic” process, but for a company as big as Marvel and Disney, its global audience is nothing organic or accidental. It is at most calibrated. It is capital as Nick Land would put it: an amplified response to positive feedback.

Cinema and positive feedback to it, as the social practice of blockbusters go, never seem to care much of “aesthetics”, or morals, or ethics, so to say. Its mystique comes from what Pauline Kael, in her classic essay “Trash, Art and the Movies,” call enjoyment. For Kael, enjoyment is the basic thing that we want to get from the movies, everything else is secondary to it. Weird thing that Kael do not want to equate what’s good in the movies — which is its fun — with art, meanwhile, Hito Steyerl would note that art needs to be salvaged for it is one of the sources of fun.

In any case, Kael’s point is never about art, but rather why do people go to the movie houses. Kael would note on enjoyment as something which is never really the same for everyone, but she nonetheless points out what she finds enjoyable on films that she sees. I think this dynamic of going to see a movie is something which is less considered when market study of films are being done. I’ve yet to look though, if studies are done, at least a survey, on why people are going to the movies. Of course, a hunch, just like Kael’s, is to enjoy. After all, enjoyment is the most basic of the use-value in consumerist societies.

Going to the movies costs a lot. It better be worth it.

Chris Fujiwara’s notion of the film critic as an organizer I think comes in here. We can understand why a lot of film critics stretch their hands to reach out to people and tell them to see this possibly underseen independent film or arthouse film. Fujiwara noted that at the most basic, you’re supposed to share the pleasure of watching the film on every review. In the context of the Philippines, however, there seems to be quite a few who are being honest on their own enjoyment.

See, for example, this review of Tristan Zinampan of Citizen Jake. It is mostly in the parentheticals that we can see what can possibly be enjoyable with the film. Mostly, the review goes back and forth between its director and the “political message” the film supposed to bring, very few on the plot points, fewest about what made the film worthwhile seeing. If the film, as the title suggest, is worthwhile as a wake-up call, it never really mentioned in the review how does the film wake you up. It just tells you things you already know.

The general tendency of film reviews center around either this form of moralism, or a point of snobbery. Most of the time, the fault is two fold between the critic and the filmmaker. Most especially, those who treat film in line with the fine arts. It is in this sense that Francis Joseph Cruz flat-out only made a review for a Lav Diaz film, and never really attempt to reach out for more audience, in his review of Ang Panahon ng Halimaw. He can choose to fault Diaz over this: on why the film seem to be a film for specialists. As it stands, his review seem to reflect a lot from which we can enjoy the film from, however, it may be as intimidating also as he said it would be.

There’s something I quite find unassuring however, of both reviews’ conclusions on both films. A wake up call and a call to arms. Both reviews merely survey the manifestations, but never really pointed out how they worked as such. Are they just working metaphorically? And if the times are as they say (dark, violent or whatever), aren’t these kinds of work… useless? For surely, who were they supposed to wake up? Who are they suppose to arm? Their already-assured audience?

Then again, if we go about fetishizing auteurs, no one would really watch a Mike de Leon film because one wants to wake up, or a Lav Diaz film because we want to bear arms. Those who follow them as artists already know how and where they stand politically, does it warrant for a repeat on the reviews of their films? What about what made them stand out as films? Isn’t that considered into equation?

It is unfair to fault an audience-base who do not know what they are dealing with to not see these kinds of films. No one even made a good case on whether anyone would have an enjoyable– if not, interesting — time watching those films. The cases which were raised by almost everyone who’d make you want to see Citizen Jake is its wokeness. But what if you don’t buy wokeness? What if you don’t buy film directors either?

Is it time for critics to consider the basic question, why do people go and see the movies, and consider them on their written pieces?

Time and again, the so-called nationalists virtue-call cinemas for blocking their screens with an all-day screening of, and fault audiences falling in line to, the next hollywood blockbusters. They also fault capitalism, “because business”, which, of course, the boogeyman we need to slay, but never really make a good case how did we come to this. This is a good case of call-out vs critique. The latter, is what we always lack when looking at this predicament.

Rather, we are afraid to critique this side of movie-going. Because it necessitates a “downgrading” of cinema from an “art” to a “mere” commodity. Critique of the cinema distributing system in a society like ours would necessitate a critique of the structure and system that enables it. And that will start always, in looking at production, modes of production, and commodities. That production, in the context of capitalism, is not art-production, but commodity production. Because these goods are exchanged for other commodities, more commonly, money. Cinema is a commodity. There’s no use crowdsourcing over at twitter on what your speculative audience want to see. We can only figure out why people go to see Avengers and not our movies, not in-lieu of their desires — these are merely the symptoms — if we start looking at films like in the manner of how we gauge our consumption of coffee.

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