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Epilogue ’08: Alexis A. Tioseco, R1

Greetings Harry, Kevin, Andrew, Nitesh and Edwin,

It seems that discussion of our favorite films, underexposed or otherwise, is naturally blending itself into one of how we saw them. As technology increases access to content, matters pertaining to distribution (legal or otherwise) and manner of projection or viewing are becoming more and more tense.

Speaking on the topic of commercial distribution of interesting cinema in the Philippines is a dead end. Outside of the rare intriguing big-budget Hollywood product, it simply doesn't exist. None of our distributors are very adventurous about picking up films for distribution, so the problems experienced in some of the other countries discussed thus far sound like heaven from where I sit. What I wouldn't give to see a Pedro Costa film released, even in one cinema, two years after it was made. A Ceylan film getting distribution in Manila, however limited, would be miraculous. It is difficult to discuss the undistributed in such a climate.

Most of the interesting films that were screened in public cinemas arrived, quite naturally, via festivals (most significantly the Cinemanila International Film Festival) or Embassies and other foreign cultural offices. While I got to see a number of wonderful films at festivals or from copies provided by friend or the filmmakers themselves, the foreign highlights of my viewing year inside a local theater were United Red Army (screened during Cinemanila), and all of the films I managed to catch during the 2nd International Silent Film Festival. An event spearheaded by Manila's Goethe Institute but involving six countries, which combines screening of classics with original live scores by local musicians — all screenings were wonderful experiences in their own way, but this single most thrilling was Cascading White Threads by Kenji Mizoguchi, shown from a 16mm print with a live score by guitar-hero Bob Aves and company.

I mention specifically that it screened from a 16mm print because, due to the increased paucity with which this is happening here in Manila, it felt like a gift. Cinemanila, our only annual international film festival of repute, with a modest budget, still valiantly attempts to screen most of their films from film prints (when that is their final format), this year projected United Red Army digitally. The annual Spanish Film Festival, held in a posh mall and put on by Instituto Cervantes de Manila screened, if I'm not mistaken, ALL of their films digitally (DigiBeta or DVD), frustrating, as these were the first public screenings in the country of films such as The Orphanage and, on their Mexican Night, Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light; both of which I skipped, as the DVD either was or would soon be available (pirated or otherwise), and the film would look much clearer on my TV than on the big screen when shown via an underpowered projector (the films usually look awfully ... soft ... when projected digitally).

Piracy...a seemingly ugly word but when a local film lover has few other options to turn to (1. downloading, 2. ordering DVDs from abroad, 3. waiting 4. move to another country) to see interesting cinema new or old, it becomes something to celebrate. I visited the local pirated DVD store yesterday to see what was available: some have classics from infamous labels lined up together (Criterion, Masters of Cinema), others bundle up Asian films together (seperating Korean films and Japanese ones, which are quite popular these days), and others have compressions of Blu-ray discs into DVD-5 or DVD-9 available in sleeves with Blu-ray packaging (obviously this makes it no different from a standard DVD release, but perhaps the pirates find the blue frame more attractive). The Sun Also Rises has never shown here, Edwin, commercially or otherwise, but it was there, available to be purchased yesterday, among the lines of films on display at the pirates.

An important side note: amidst this sea of illegality there is, however, a code of honor followed by many, at least in the film community: don't buy pirated copies of local films.

With all of these works available pirated, will audiences still watch them when shown in a cinema in film prints? The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Julian Schnabel had been available for at least six months in the pirated DVD market prior to its screening in Cinemanila (from a 35mm print), and yet the screening I attended, one of many as Cinemanila often re-screens films popular in the festival, was nearly full. Perhaps the audience that watched was not the same one that swims among the pirates intently, or perhaps it was and they still wanted to experience the film in a proper cinema setting.

On the other side of viewing coin are films seen during travels, or through copies given by friends. Perhaps as important as the movies I've seen at film events abroad were the people I've met, the kindness they've showed me, and the way that, just like a good film can, they've helped me understand this world just a little bit better. Adrian Martin, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in Slovenia, often repeats a quote which he attributes to Godard: "cinema is the good will for a meeting", and at this moment I can't think of anything more apt. More on this soon.



Kevin B. Lee said...

Welcome Alexis. I'm glad you mention Adrian because I too had the pleasure of meeting him last year, at a symposium hosted by NYU that featured him, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Nicole Brenez (by proxy). Ironically, the conference was supposed to be strictly for NYU students, but it turns out that there were more people in the audience at the personal invite of Adrian and Jonathan than there were students. Maybe this is a variation of Andrew's comment that one takes for granted what's readily available to them...

I mention that event because it was the first of what would be many similar events throughout the year, big and small, private and public, concerning the present state and future of film criticism, which became an overriding theme of 2008, what with the droves of professional film critics losing their jobs and the surplus of non-professional online film critics (including members of our discussion, such as myself) with a lot of energy and insight to offer and not a lot of career potential immediately in view. And yet so many people continue to write abundanty, and often impressively about film, without any hope of compensation for their output. I think, to your last point, Alexis, that it's the community bonding, the finding of an audience of like-minded enthusiasts, that, for now at least, serves as its own reward for the efforts we make collectively in discussing the films we love.

In this regard, Adrian, Jonathan and Nicole are true ambassadors of this spirit. All of them have volunteered to contribute commentary for my videos and Jonathan and Nicole have already done so (in Nicole's case, she wrote her commentary for Boris Barnet's By the Bluest Seas within 24 hours of my request!). I'm surprised that I don't feel more sheepish about requesting people to volunteer their time on these videos without any recompense other than a free meal or a drink, but everyone seems to really enjoy the experience and explore their own enthusiasm for a film in a medium other than writing. And through this experience I've gotten to know dozens of great thinkers of film, so I definitely agree with the spirit of Godard's quote that you cited, Alexis.

While we're on the topic of video criticism, I'm happy to report that YouTube just reactivated my account while they process my counterclaim against INA for the fair use of ...And God Created Woman for my video essay on that film. A nice thing to happen to me in between Martin Luther King Day and the inauguration of a new president who seems to symbolize a new, optimistic era of open global exchange of ideas and culture.

Edwin Mak said...

"amidst this sea of illegality there is, however, a code of honor followed by many"

I find this a source of fascination. Isn't this the most truthful, performative, gesture of a national cinema? At least where film lovers are concerned. Black-market ethics, and their un-surveyed gestures of protecting local film economies, must have some significance. Perhaps, in the strength of which the local identifies with their locally produced cinema. I do wonder what foreign vs. local cinematic boundaries would look like, if they were re-drawn according to these actual realities of cultural consumption?

An aside. Though, I can't remember the specific Hong Kong film (directed by Wong Jing, I suspect), I do remember an oddly touching self-reflexive moment from it. The lead (Cheung Kar Fai), seated in an virtually empty cinema turns to the camera to deliver a bitter rant on how pirates, in their hustle to "fill their bowls," were "filling his bowl with shit." Rubbish film, but a memorable moment, that spoke volumes about the reality of the Hong Kong's film market circa 1990s.

HarryTuttle said...

I'm very interested to hear about the condition of a cinema visibility in Manila. We share the same problems everywhere, at various degrees.

The first time I saw Murnau's Tabu, it was at a festival hosted in a classroom of the Paris suburbs and we could hear the 16mm projector clicking next to us. I think that's what makes every screening unique, there is always a special story behind how we saw each film.

Critics at Cannes watch films under the best imaginable conditions and still boo at the screen or walk out without any trace of respect for the work, oblivious of the luxury privilege they are granted...

This code of honour you mention is remarkable indeed. Cinephiles should download commercial movies and buy official DVDs for struggling artfilms as a way of showing support to auteurs and distributors who make the effort to distribute them.

A friend who went to China found an incredible variety of obscure films on the DVD black market. And it amazes me how pirates would make the effort and take the risk to rip films with a negligible audience. It doesn't cost them much, but still they could invest this time to put out another blockbuster instead. The principle of the "long tail" applies to piracy too. There is always someone to provide the film that maybe only one person will purchase.

And if the pirate market is an alternate means of visibility for undistributed auteurs, then the natural law of supply/demand among pirates respects more diversity and satisfy discreet requests. Whereas the commercial distributors are entangled in copyright restrictions, embargoes, profitability that ultimately hurt the audience waiting.

<<Edwin Mak, R1 | Weekly releases by city >>

I’m glad to see one of our young critics from the Philippines represented here, very important in terms of the Philippines becoming a part of world cinema discourse. And it’s great that Alexis also addresses the issue of piracy, which is a reality in the Philippines, being very poor there is just no other way to have access to important films-is it the overwhelming passion for cinema that leads one to seek out these films, and if and when the films are granted a release, do audiences still turn up to watch them? Fascinating stuff, I look forward to more of your articles or even reviews appearing here, Alexis.

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