Sunday, June 19, 2011

Of Whimsy and Verisimilitude

It started with this very creative Pepsi ad linked by my friend, the Cleric on Facebook and our mailing list:

It had all the amusing cliches of typical Pinoy action films: over-the-top action scenes, and melodramatic dialogue peppered generously with metaphor and simile. What was so cool about this clip was that everything was interpreted literally.

This brought on a lot of sentimental longing in The Cleric and some of my old friends back in the Philippines. We went on YouTube, looking for some of those old movies we loved to watch when we were younger—I went and looked for old Jun and Robin Aristorenas clips. I found it funny that what I saw as dead serious as a child are now, by today's standards, camp and overblown.

But, of course, this is retro and the way movies were made at that time not only in the Philippines but everywhere else. It was this very "retro-ness" that the Cleric said he missed: whimsical and entertaining action movies that are no longer being made.

There were some, however, who forget that these films are retro and compare Pinoy films from the 60's and 70's (which, even then, were lower budget than its counterparts in the US) to modern US action films. So, we found these responses on YouTube (where a lot of these old movie clips can be currently found), and I think they can be divided into two basic types: nostalgia and shame.

It was the latter kind of response that my friends found very annoying, and some of them made a point to 'answer' these responses.

Nevertheless, much as I would normally be as annoyed as they over these responses, I find that I cannot. While I do feel a certain bit of nostalgia I find that, unlike the Cleric and some others, there also is a fair bit of shame... or, rather, cultural cringe. The truth is, while I do not agree with every point of argument that the naysayers present in the comments section of these YouTube clips, I do not want films like these to be produced anymore... except in special circumstances. Whimsical is good, I like watching it, and I have nothing against it, but I feel it is not where the future of Pinoy action films lie.

It is in verisimilitude that I feel that Pinoy action cinema can truly blossom, and this is why.

A Digression: Whimsy versus Verisimilitude

Richard Donner rescued the cinematic superhero. He not only rescued it, but made the cinematic superhero possible and, more importantly, profitable.

On the other hand, Joel Schumacher (with the best of intentions) not only almost killed the cinematic superhero but made the profitability of such future ventures doubtful.

The difference between the two is a balance between whimsy (lighthearted and amusing) on the one hand and verisimilitude ('realistic') on the other. The latter word was a sign found hanging in Richard Donner's office when he directed the movies Superman and Superman II.


Donner wanted Superman grounded in verisimilitude, or 'having the quality of realism', in order to make the character and the story relatable. This was because he did not like the original script as it evolved from the original treatment made by Mario Puzo (of The Godfather fame)... he actually had the script re-written from scratch. Donner thought that the script, while admitting that it was well-written (it was written by Puzo, after all), was campy, unrealistic and ridiculous. For instance, one of the original scenes was that Superman would swoop down on who he thought was Lex Luthor and finds out that he had actually found Telly Savalas.1, 2

So, he had the script changed to be less campy, more realistic and less ridiculous—and history was made. This film helped establish the superhero movie as a respected film genre. Donner's Superman was so successful that even decades later people still think of Christopher Reeve as the quintessential Superman.


Of course, the Salkinds (who were producers of Superman) eventually got rid of Donner and, eventually, realised their original vision of a campy Superman in several sequels (even getting a comedian to share precious screen time). None of the sequels, however, were as highly regarded as the first two films that was Donner's vision.

 When Tim Burton's Batman first came into the scene, it was what some hailed as, finally, the Batman movie to stand up to Donner's Superman... and, for all intents and purposes, it was. It rescued Batman from decades of Adam West's camp rendition and returned Batman to his roots—a man so damaged by the murder of his parents that he dresses up like a bat to mercilessly beat up bad guys (how did the Adam West Batman ever maintain his camp with such a burden?).

But, not everyone was happy with it. People only remembered the ba-ba-ba-ba-batman tv series and reacted negatively to this film and the Burton-directed sequel. Roger Ebert believed that while Batman Returns was not a bad movie, he still gave it a negative review because "superheroes and film noir don't go together", reasoning that "the very essence of noir is that there are no more heroes."3

As much as I respect Ebert, I think here he misses the point.

Nevertheless, too many people believed in Ebert and others, resulting in pressuring Schumacher (who, in fairness, originally wanted to film an adaptation of Frank Miller's Batman: Year One, but was rejected by the studio—I had initially believed that the only Batman Schumacher knew was the Adam West one) to make the film series more mainstream, and (with tragic consequences) marketable and "toyetic".

Critics enjoyed the film. It sold more toys than its predecessors. It was a triumph for whimsy and entertainment. It was a triumph for compromise.

Of course, Schumacher's reputation was tainted. More importantly, the sequels eventually disappointed fans and critics alike and almost killed the franchise. Superhero films, as a genre, became, once again, just another product of whimsy.

Years later, Christopher Nolan would take inspiration from the Donner treatment to imbue new life, respectability and, ultimately, marketability into the rebooted Batman film franchise.1

A whimsical character imbued with verisimilitude not only works, it works well.

If only Bryan Singer also realised this.

"Whimsy" in Pinoy Cinema

I do not believe that most of the classic Pinoy action films were intentionally and deliberately products of whimsy. They just ended up that way because the templates they based these action films on were from a more whimsical and optimistic age, an age when cinematic techniques and movie special effects technology did not and, in some cases, cannot replicate real life. Because of these, just like theatre, audiences had to suspend their disbelief a bit more than their more contemporary counterparts.

Pinoy films (just like most films of other countries in the same region), because of a perpetually lower budget and other factors, had to keep to this sort of movie-making longer than their western counterpart. This part of the formula, I understand.

But while elsewhere others were experimenting in story-telling techniques that can produce a greater degree of verisimilitude than ever, Pinoy films would, on the whole, stagnate. While elsewhere, films similar in plot to "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and "Princess Sara" became a passing trend, Pinoys would fall in love with this formula—as well as other formulae from the golden age of cinema—and would make them staples not only of movies but, later television shows.

Basically, while the world went more and more towards verisimilitude (developing techniques, with various levels of success, to present the whimsical in as realistic way as possible), Philippine cinema would nurture the whimsical beyond its natural lifespan until it is now a shuffling, drooling horror.

Most of this is a reactionism due to misplaced nationalism. Why, pundits would ask, should we pattern ourselves again on the "imperialistic west" and the "mapanakop na dayuhan"? They forget, quite conveniently, that the formulae they are defending originally came from the west.

All across the board, in various degrees, we have this openly reactionist suspicion of what is imported while becoming consumers of it. So we import foreign movies and tv series (not all from the imperialistic Americans, mind you—we also love our Latin Americans and fellow Asians) while loudly defending our "culture". We have become two-faced lovers, like a man protesting loudly that he loves his wife and his family while having a prostitute on his lap.

But, of course, we still eventually imitate, if for no other reason than to remain relevant. Some attempts at imitating foreign storytelling techniques have left me proud, like the biopics of Jose Rizal and Macario Sakay, high drama on the high seas like Muro Ami (which preserves whimsy without wallowing in it) and, recently, RPG: Metanoia.

But the addiction to the whimsical still ruins even almost point-by-point imitation: "Kailangan Ko Ikaw", an almost exact copy of "Notting Hill", was ruined because they tried to make it more lighthearted than it already was. What could have been a classic is just another tragic example of the triumph of camp, portraying a Senator (who, ironically, appeared to have the best acting in the movie) who misappropriates public resources and law enforcers just to set up a totally bogus "happy ending". It was worse than Deux Ex Machina.

I can go on about how great shows like Mulawin and Encantadia were eventually ruined in the same fashion, but why beat a dead horse?

In Defense of Whimsy and Entertainment

Nevertheless, there are occasions when whimsy, not verisimilitude, is what is needed. Just as there are times when intrinsically whimsical subjects (like superheroes and fantasy) have to have verisimilitude applied to them, those which are too real and too stark are often improved with the application of whimsy.

But by no means do I intend to assert that only a balance between the two is right and proper. There are certain treatments that must mutually exclude the other... but also treatments when we should just make up our minds to be entertained. Even Shakespeare, who wrote Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear, wrote "pure" hilarity in his comedies untempered by "verisimilitude".

So while I bemoan plenty of current cinematic essays that hanker to whimsy (not just in Pinoy cinema, but elsewhere as well), there are some that I admit will suffer under too heavy an application of verisimilitude.

The best example that comes to mind is the recent treatment of The Green Hornet. At first, there was the knee-jerk reaction of incredulity—using a comedian to portray a contemporary of Batman? Shouldn't this story be more serious? I initially agreed with the critics and pundits that this was not going to be good... and in some way, they are right.

But there was guilty pleasure there when I watched it (the certain sort of pleasure, I suppose, that so many have in watching other more whimsical offerings of Pinoy cinema)... the sort of guilty pleasure I get when browsing through all the old Aristorenas and Lito Lapid movies.

I am unsure why I enjoyed this movie when others of its kind (the Schumacher Batman, for instance) drive me away? I can intellectualise about how this movie, in a more serious treatment, would have made the character of Kato even more subservient and would have presented numerous problems. I could argue that a serious origin story would fall flat and will not explain too much, and would make the action too plodding.

But the real truth is that with Batman verisimilitude works, but I felt (and, I have to admit that I might be mistaken here) in Green Hornet it is whimsy that seems to work.

In the end, I realise that the point is not so much that only one kind of movie or the other should exist—both have their place. I also realise that the reason why I can readily accept such whimsical treatments now is because, at least, it is an option and not the norm.

It is just like our reaction to shows like Master Chef and Heston's Feasts: yes, it is well and good that we have such gourmet offerings and an educated palate is to be striven for. But there is a place for appreciation of even plain food.

My objection to Pinoy cinema's infatuation with whimsy is that we are given very limited options: it's all just McMovies.

Missed Opportunities

Elsewhere, for instance, it is a tragedy if an actor is ever typecast in a role, no matter how beloved and endearing the role is. Being typecast means a limitation of the actor, and considered a watering down of not only the art of acting but also the abilities of the actor. Actors who embrace typecasting are almost universally derided (with some reason).

In the Philippines, finally being typecast is considered the pinnacle of success. Having one's name associated with either being only Maldita, or only kontrabida, or being one or the other of [blank] King or Queen is seen as something to be desired. Who cares, for instance, that Roderick Paulate is such a great actor, recognised abroad as a versatile actor who can realistically portray emotions... no, he will always be variations of the over-the-top gay man he has been typecast in.

Who cares for the subtle acting of Cesar Montano in his various movies, when one can have the howling histrionics of the "institutions of Philippine cinema" in whatever Mano Po sequel that is out there?

Because while Pinoy cinema was just like all cinematic treatments in the past, everywhere else experimentation and a moving forward was seen as a good thing to prevent stagnation. The Philippine movie industry is based on just preserving the formula.

When Jose Rizal fist came out after such movies like Sakay and other small, independent films that combined subtle acting with great story-telling, we thought that finally we are going to catch up to the rest of the world and have movies that is watchable not only locally but everywhere else.

It did not happen that way, of course, mostly because too many people who matter still have their head in the sand.

Do we really, then, blame those Pinoys (or part Pinoys) who feel a certain frustration that we cannot even pass off our cinematic attempts the same way Indians can be proud of certain Bollywood offerings?

And even the good Pinoy movies are nowhere to be seen. We have all those endearing but ultimately ridiculous Pinoy action clips on YouTube, but where is Salamangkero? Where is the original Igorota? I look for Pinoy art, all I'm offered is Pinoy arte.

It isn't because the Philippines do not have talent. I have watched too many Repertory Philippines and Trumpets productions to conclude this, and my friends are doing their part in writing better Pinoy literature beyond the "labas-masok" variety. I have also seen that a lot of Pinoys are talented film makers and musicians that we can be proud of... but those who matter (those in charge and who have "influence") would rather peddle crap.

All is not lost...

So in the end, I suppose it is a bit laughable that we accuse them of "loving Hollywood" too much, because they can accuse us of "loving Mother Lily" (or whatever nickname we can give the Pinoy film industry) too much too. We are missing the point—there will always be bad films on both sides of the Pacific.

The point is this: they have a bad film, and they call it thus and try to fix it (stumbling and groping all the way, yes, but they try). We have a bad film... and we justify it. K'se nga naman, ang arte mo naman... p'wede na 'yan. Sus!

But all is not lost. There are still courageous film makers out there who do not look at merely selling movies but actually making them. RPG: Metanoia is my recent favourite. It is whimsical. It is escapist. But they grounded it in verisimilitude that it made such a whimsical premise work well. There is no condescension, there is no dumbing down for the masses to understand. Yet it is a very Filipino work, from the way their "guild" interacts, to where they play and how even the very flaw of the hero's machine saves the day.

It is one of those movies which I have no hesitation to show my friends here.

And, thankfully, such films are becoming more common (despite Enteng Kabisote still existing). Yes, there is hope.