“Cinema is not made of flesh”: an interview by Mara Valle

Around late November last year, a student by the name Mara Valle (MV) approached me for a written interview for her undergraduate (?) thesis. Her topic has something to do with the films directed by Olivia Lamasan and representation of women in her films. I asked for her permission if I can post it here. I revised some of the points I made, mainly due to clarity concerns.

The decision to post these answers to her questions came with the realization that the answers actually map the groundwork of my thoughts with regards to cinema. The content mainly revolves around my general theory of the function of cinema as determined by its historical practice as a medium of illusion. And that it is within this framework that we can understand what cinema is doing to us and its main contribution to history and our lives. These were all fleshed out by Valle’s seemingly basic questions which never really occurred to me to write at all. So, I’m using this opportunity to have these available here, at least as a point of personal reference.

I’d like to thank Mara Valle for reaching out and asking these questions.


MV – What was your drive behind making film reviews?

– I’m not sure if you can call it drive. But I do it because I don’t know what else I can write. Or what else I can do. I write fiction from time to time. I also make films if time and resources permits.

But what I’m most comfortable with (with regards to my skill and knowledge scope, despite my handicap in grammar) is my capability to process my interaction with cinema and visual culture through criticism. There is an attempt of course, to broaden my interests. I’ve wrote a political pamphlet once for the Mass Organization I’m with (my work there is currently focused on production). Recently, I’m less interested with film in a manner that can’t consider myself as a cinephile anymore. But herein lies the contradiction that I’m already in the middle of it both as a creator and a commentator. The most I can do to validate my existence (and even with my “official” line of work since in the University, your tenure as a faculty gets more secured if you produce more “researches”) is to continue writing film reviews and criticism.

There is an advantage with not being interested with cinema while engaging with it: you see aspects of the medium which are mostly disregarded by those who proclaim that loves it. There are limits for people who love when they theorize and historicize: that they theorize and historicize to redeem that certain thing they love. This disinterest with cinema made my criticism more observant with what constitute its existence from the simplest to the most complex: from the illusory motion of frames to the military-industrial complex’s use of cinema as instrument of war.


MV – As a film critic who despite the fact that you are most likely to see different films almost every day, do you have a favorite movie? What is the movie’s title?

– As I’ve mentioned, recently, films do not interest me. So, as of late, I only see films whenever permitted. I do not watch much films lately. Probably before, I see different stuff almost every day but realizations from 2016 made me pause and take my time on consuming motion pictures. I still find Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle interesting enough to be called my favorite. But more as a narrative and as humanist critique of global capitalism than a movie. Well, formally, it is also compelling. Recently I’ve been going back to films I used to love and some of them I still like to some extent: Un Chien Andalou, Meshes of the Afternoon, Throw Away Your Books Rally in the Streets, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Inland Empire, Shaolin Soccer, Throw Down, Man with a Movie Camera.


MV – What is your basis when determining whether a film is good or bad?

– My criteria is more of whether the film is effective or not in providing an illusion. Cinema’s technology, basing with Muybridge’s motion studies in the late 19th century, reveals to us this very basic function of cinema: to provide illusions of any kind. Whether an illusion of motion, of time or of affect. A technology to replace the phantasmagoria, the magic lantern and even the vaudeville.

As a medium of illusion, cinema in the mid-20th century became what Louis Althusser called as Ideological State Apparatus (ISA). I highlight more on my reviews and criticism the role of cinema in propagating ideology than to concern myself on whether a film is “good” or “bad.” There really is no such thing as a good or bad film, but rather an effective or ineffective propaganda.

Of course there is ugly filmmaking, but even mishandled craft is still to be considered with its overall message. Say, for example, the overly “polished” single-take action scene from Buy Bust (2018). News is saying that they took them 52 takes to get that shot. When you see that scene, it still looks like a rehearsal video. If that’s the 52nd take, something must be wrong with the way it was handled. But the sequence being clumsy worked for its overall propaganda as a film which abhors both the action genre and the poor.


MV – When evaluating films, how do you handle if you feel you have a bias for or against the subject matter of a film. How do you manage to temper your review?

– At present, I am against any form of “subjectivation” (cinema sa an ISA means it constructs the audience as state’s subject) with regards to filmic representation. But cinema itself, at least its industrial part under bureaucrat capitalism, maintains subjectivation as its basic point: it shows what’s proper, it tells you what to buy, it tells you to subvert (but in a limited scope since industrial cinema can’t promote extreme subversions), but not in a very commanding way. Like how Slavoj Zizek say it: cinema teaches you how to desire.

So how do I handle being against cinema itself? I write criticism. My criticism is directed at two points: at the film and at film production under bureaucrat capitalism. I manage my temper by escalating it. There’s really no point of suppressing your anger over something that you should really be angry at. For example, Heneral Luna, is an effective propaganda on distributing semi-feudal ideas and liberal cynicism, since they appeal towards those who are disappointed over the incompetence of the Aquino administration but they opportunistically do so to promote their own degenerate and reactionary ideas. Isn’t that something that you should be angry about? Who are these people to tell us that we are our own enemy as if actual colonialism and imperialism never happened and is not happening?


MV – On your perspective, has digital cinema destroyed realism? Why?

– As mentioned earlier, cinema’s basic function is to provide illusions. Being mechanically called as “motion picture” in the twentieth century validates this function. Cinema works through a flowing assemblage of images which are being ran at a relatively fast speed. On the average industry standard, 24 frames per second. Having provided an illusion of motion through the projection of a set of images at a certain speed, realism will fail to take base. The first artist of cinema, Georges Melies, made cinema an art by incorporating with moving images not social realism, nor romanticism, but his practice of magic, which was his craft before he became fascinated with the cinema machine. Even the so-called “social realism” of the twentieth century, from Italian practice to the Filipino Melodrama, cannot even claim for a certain realism. Psychoanalytically speaking, the most cinema can depict is not a social real, but a social symbolic.

Cinema being a medium of representation, can never get hold of the real. It is an ideologue’s tool: most it can grasp is an idealism.

The digital medium, if anything, did not destroy realism, since it’s not even there in the first place. The fact that the use of digital medium has escalated from marginal use towards being the new convention means that it adds something quite positive in the realm of capitalist driven production of cinema. As such, it helped create more “realistic” scenes: isn’t it with digital cinema that the Bing Lao-Brillante Mendoza clique first deployed their “real time” “found story” aesthetics? Through the easier manipulation of digital images, it’s easier to make images as close to ‘real.’ Cinema, being born in the era of early cybernetics, guaranteed that the real that we know from the enlightenment – the humanist real – can never cross the realm of the reels. What is unfair is that cinema affects the real, as much as the developments in the mode of production and means of production affected it too. Cinema is not made of flesh. Its real is synthetic.


MV – What are your views on lead and supporting actresses in films that are being produced today? Personally, do you think women are still seen as Maria Clara or a damsel in distress in films? Do you think directors that produce films nowadays are gender sensitive?

I’ll be answering the three questions above in one go. From how I see it, the depiction of women in Philippine Cinema today borders between traditional and liberal, but both with conservative tendencies. Cinematic representation, at least in the industrial sense, do not really care much about the accuracy or political necessity of progressive stance if it do not guarantee profit. There are audiences for damsels in distress, there are audiences for depiction of independent women. It’s a matter of whose perversion is the studio catering with at a given moment.

The studio system in the 21st century rely a lot on speculation, like most venues of contemporary art market. If they feel the tendency of the time sway on traditional end, they’ll do it. Social media makes it easy to calibrate with what the consumers want. This is less of audience participation than expectation exploitation. There are no real modernists existing right now, at least among those who positively reinforce cinema and its production. Any demand for what ought to be represented in the cinema screens are probably western-white culture whims than actual intellectual demand. There are demands for gender sensitivity but not, say, abolition of conditions which enable violence against women and other genders which includes feudalism, bureaucrat capitalism and imperialism.

This non-addressing of social, historical and political conditions which enable violence is what makes such moves on cinema conservative. A conservation, in the literal sense, of existing status quo. That as long as these demands are met, further extortion and expropriation of surplus value from workers can be justified. By the end of the day, it’s consumerism forming ‘safe spaces’ out of cinema.

It’s this idea of forming a safe space out of cinema houses which exposes two things about the concept of such spaces. First, safe spaces only pose for a temporary remedy which do not really solve anything, as such it is only supposing a politics of comfort. Second, that such calls for safe spaces contributes more to the conditions which actually violates rights of women, children and other minorities, as it only address comfort and do not call for struggle.

Not really sure whether directors nowadays are gender sensitive. But I am highly suspicious of those who pose as one. Especially, if they’re looking at women, gays, lesbians, and other identities outside of the basic contradictions and only bank on personal ones. The personal isn’t necessarily political.


MV – In the following films:

  1. Minsan Minahal Kita
  2. In the Name of Love
  3. The Mistress
  4. Milan
  5. Starting Over Again
  6. Barcelona: A Love Untold

Do you think the women characters are portrayed as empowered or weak?

– From the titles you mentioned, I only remember four of them. The best that I can remember is In The Name of Love, and I don’t really recall the film having any care whether they depicted Cedes (Angel Locsin) as empowered or not. And I think that’s how it goes too with Milan and Starting Over Again. I vaguely remember The Mistress.

Though, they are not really portrayed as weak too. Remember, these are studio films. Most that they are concerned with are the affects these characters and films generated. As studio films, they are backed with the most reactionary, backward and profit-driven narrative decisions. There may have been attempts from writers to subvert their materials, but subversions has always been ineffective, even if those supposed subversions made it to the final cut of the film. Studio filmmaking practice never really endorse any kind of empowerment, most especially in a film produced in a semifeudal country like ours. There will always be dependence of any sort, on the status quo mostly. The films mentioned above, being produced by Star Cinema, under the corporate blanket of ABS CBN, promotes the notion of the family as the most important aspect of life. This ideological dispersion run on two sides: it promotes the value that maintains the stature of the ruling class as ruling class, and it ensures to generate more profit.

Here’s the thing: most of 21st century productions of Star Cinema tend to cater the female market more, some of which may have a notion of empowerment from time to time. This is because by the turn of the century, the buying power of single young-adult and middle aged women has significantly grown due to the global necessity for more corporate-skilled and outsourced workers. If Star Cinema will try to do more of these women empowerment themes on their films, this isn’t because they really do advocate for it. After all, they’re still one of those larger companies which practices non-regularization through their outsourcing of clerical workers from agencies, a lot of whose are women, hence disenfranchising working class women on their end. This is on top of their crazy hours of working days (from 12 hour to 30 hour shooting days) which is unfair, for both of their men and women workers, from their cinema production to their news production. Any campaign brought about by mainstream media for any sort of empowerment or advocacy, they do so with capitalistic opportunism. And I think this go along with all other filmmakers and not just Olivia Lamasan, who, after all, is just another corporate employee with a fat paycheck.


MV – Do you think the image of women characters in films perceive how people see them in real life?

– Sometime they hit it by the nail. Most especially on the earlier sequences of their films, when they establish women as troubled and busy despite of all of their other necessities in life. It is on their establishment of narrative conflict and resolution – when they are actually becoming stories – that their films start to become fictional.

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