Film critiquing is a curious profession. We all know that, just as is the case with most activities that writers engage themselves in, it is rarely a lucrative undertaking. Far less so for one from a country such as the Philippines, that values honest criticism as much as it does honest politicians (for the most part it doesn't). This lack of sustainability means that critics in the Philippines are often forced to occupy themselves with a separate endeavor, one that "earns" so as to circumvent the income lost during time wasted in this thankless profession*. For film critic Noel Vera, this profession was banking.
The title of this collection, Critic After Dark, takes off from this idea, painting a picture of Vera as a nocturnal creature, one that retreats from work, finding comfort in the recesses of a dim theater, watching in solitude and documenting his experiences at unholy hours.
Many of those who write on cinema in the Philippines are educated in the arts, or even possess a degree specifically in film. Noel graduated in Legal Management from the Ateneo de Manila and completed his MBA at Michigan-Dearborn University. Not exactly the type of background that one would expect from arguably the most important critical voice on a country's cinema, but one that, perhaps, leads us toward an understanding of what makes him so unique.
Noel Vera and I represent two different strains of criticism. One sees and writes about everything. He watches the shit with as much as love and openness as the works of proven competent directors. The other is selective. I wouldn't say snobbish for I detest the term and don't agree with its high-brow connotation, but it is one that has been thrown around. He sacrifices occasionally, but generally picks and chooses what he watches and more so what he writes about. Noel belongs to the former strain; I to the latter. It is precisely this difference, what he does that I can not, that represents a big part of the reason why I appreciate and value him so much as a critic.
It is his singularity that makes him special and makes reading his criticism so interesting. The Philippines has a number of different "groups" of critics or awarding bodies-the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, the Young Critics Circle, the Film Academy of the Philippines- each with their own biases and politics; and none of which Vera belongs to. This autonomy is key in appreciating his writing as a viewer, and is one of the reasons that he has played such a vital role in Philippine cinema. No other critic has written with as much passion and force, nor as much as Vera has in the past decade. The quantity of his writing has been almost as important as its quality, as it has allowed us to familiarize ourselves with his tone (wrought by wit and incisive humor), language (informed yet intelligible to the average reader), and taste (for imagination, for psychologically engaging works, as well as, at times the bizarre or sensual), essentially establishing the single most distinguishable "personality" among film critics in the Philippines. Criticism is dialogue. This is a concept that I have maintained and truly believe. As a lover of cinema and one who has started to take on the responsibility of writing on it, I've slowly begun to see the importance, not just of having film reviews or criticism per se, but of having real, honest-to-goodness film critics. Critics in the truest sense, who not only are knowledgeable about cinema and write well about it, but whose distinct body of writing has been shaped by time and taken on a familiar form in the mind of its readers, creating a distinct personality. Over the past ten years, Noel Vera's criticism, far more than that of any other, has become a common reference in discourse among the informed, a point of departure from where discussions are often begun.
Vera has been chastised and championed in equal parts for the praise that he bestows on Mario O'Hara. Some, such as French critic Max Tessier, have supported and defended his adoration of O'Hara; while others have questioned his veneration, believing that he goes overboard. It is difficult to remain neutral on topics that Noel is so impassioned about (and the work of O'Hara is certainly one), because he douses his opinions with such fervent language that one often can't help but rage back in reaction. The beauty of a case such as that of his praise for O'Hara, is that whether you agree with him or not, whether you think fair his assessments of O'Hara or not, you know Vera so well through his writing, have a strong sense of what he appreciates and what he doesn't, that you can understand the reason for his fawning; simply- that he will place imagination before cohesion; magic (realism) before neo (realism), and considers inventiveness a much higher priority than production value (for which O'Hara is often criticized).
Critic After Dark, published by BigO publishing in Singapore (another telling sign that our film culture is lacking- a collection of writing by one of the best Filipino critics is published abroad before home), is a testament to this dialogue. Critic collects a decades worth of Vera's writing on Philippine Cinema (1994-2004), is divided into five parts; Part 1: Filipino Films, Part 2: Tributes and Festivals, Part 3: Interviews, Part 4: Plays, and Part 5: Catholic Films. The last is the only one that is not explicitly Filipino-centric and while interesting (in it he reviews Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc, Exorcist, and several other Christ-related films), it is not the reason we came. We have come to discuss Philippine cinema, and we will not go away disappointed. The real meat and potatoes of the book are Parts 1 & 2: Filipino Films and Tributes and Festivals. Should the book only have included these it would still have been essential reading (the rest of the sections are gravy). Featuring over 80 reviews, occasionally tackling two or more films in a single piece, Vera gives us his highlights (Tikoy Aguiluz's Bagong Bayani, Lav Diaz's Batang West Side) and low lives (the films of Carlitos Siguion-Reyna and Erik Matti, to whom he is politely ruthless) from the last decade of Philippine cinema, including thorough reviews of some classics (Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang), excellent essays on Mario O'Hara and Mike De Leon, and the gauntlet - his choices for Thirteen Important Filipino Films. The breadth of his coverage is remarkable, and one such as myself can't help but be glad there was someone reliable to watch and look critically at all these films.
Jumping to the next section, you ponder, why is there a section on plays? And then you read a piece titled Insiang Comes Home; Vera's review of Mario O'Hara's 2002 play Insiang.
"The slums of Pasay, where O'Hara had originally set the film, are full of prostitutes, bargirls, transvestites, what-have-you; girls, even girls as beautiful as Koronel, are a dime a dozen there. Brocka set the film in Tondo's slums nearby Smoky Mountain because he wanted the visual impactof Koronel's beauty against Tondo's spectacular squalor."
Vera is commenting on the shift in setting between O'Hara's original script for Insiang, and the version that Brocka filmed. He continues.
"Which may indicate the basic difference between Brocka's and O'Hara's approach, at least with respect to this story: Brocka didn't seem to mind going after a good effect, even at the cost of some distortion of the truth; O'Hara, apparently, isn't as flashy - the truth is the truth, plain and simple."
He provides an insightful criticism, and one that most in the Philippines have either overlooked or shied away from mentioning in their canonizing of Brocka. Give respect where respect is due- Lino Brocka is one of the finest filmmakers the Philippines has had, and an extremely important artist for his time- but be fair when considering his career- the compromises he made; both in terms of projects (doing commercial works) and actual content (pandering to the film festival circuits lust for stories of third world poverty). For Vera, at least with respect to this review, the truth is the truth, plain and simple.
While Philippine cinema saw rejuvenation in 2005, the decade that preceded was almost certainly a disappointing one. Noel Vera's commitment to criticism through this period is almost heroic. Vera's love is cinema, you see, and it is a love so strong and faithful that it appears to devour almost all other impressions of the man. Cinema is his love, and Philippine cinema his steady girlfriend. He knows her virtues and faults, can see her flaws and mistakes, but loves her so much that he can't let go; that he struggles and stays committed because he knows he can see the beauty in her that no one else can. yet. His challenge is to articulate that love; make visible that beauty (that often isn't pretty by conventional standards), and make it tangible; make it real; make it come alive so that others may be able to experience and appreciate it as well.
Noel Vera moved with his family to the US in 2003. He has left a large void in his absence.
(* unless you are a powerful pundit who controls the entertainment section of the most popular newspaper in the country and earn enough on the side from publishing HBO and Cinemax schedules at the end of your column.)
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