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Friday, February 19, 2010

The Aesthetic of the Meandering Camera

The Aesthetic of the Meandering Camera:
An Analysis of Three Filipino Independent Films

by Alvin B. Yapan

Paper read during the 5th Annual Southeast Asian Cinemas Conference
Ateneo de Manila University, 22 November 2008

Aesthetically, we could say that Philippine independent cinema positions itself, consciously and or unconsciously, in opposition to mainstream. Instead of staged mise-en-scene, we find a production set-up with the most minimal intervention. Whatever the location provides will do. Instead of well-known actors, we have locals acting in the film. Instead of polished lighting and audio design, we find available light and live sound. Dialogues are not dubbed. Instead of film negatives, there is digital filmmaking. These aesthetic choices seem to be more borne out of necessity rather than by any political stance. Independent would mean that filmmakers do not rely on the studio or network system to finance their production. But there is still a need on their part to earn a profit, if only to continue producing more films. This is the case for example of Jeffrey Jeturian’s producer Atty. Josabeth Alonso. The same could be said for ufo Pictures, which produced Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros [The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros](2005) and Endo [Love on a Budget] (2007), and other independent production outfits. Furthermore, Philippine independent cinema could also not speak of a definite political movement comparable, for example to the Latin Americans who theorized what is now dubbed as Third Cinema.(1) The union of independent filmmakers here in the Philippines, for instance, only came after the marked proliferation of independent films rather than spurring the said phenomenon. However, the boundary between what is borne out of necessity and what is politically motivated is always contestable. What is certain is that the aesthetic of this independent cinema contrasts itself against the polish of mainstream cinema.

To say however that this aesthetic of independent cinema borrows largely from the documentary genre is misleading. Relating this aesthetic also to that of documentary drama (docu-drama) would need a lot of qualifications. It is safe to say that Philippine independent cinema created a peculiar and an entirely different species of film. Since the history of Philippine cinema is particular in its own, it is following a very different trajectory from other third world cinemas. Kubrador [The Bet Collector] (2006), Serbis (2008) and Ranchero (2008) are already showing us the aesthetic tendencies of this kind of cinema. These are just tendencies. There are always exceptions. Being produced several years apart however, by different directors of varying backgrounds, and produced by varying production outfits, these three films would show us how this aesthetic tendency has been a consistent choice among directors in giving their work filmic form. This is an aesthetic largely characterized by hand-held tracking shots almost always providing the audience with an over-the-shoulder perspective of a particular character as he/she explores a confined space. Sometimes, over-the-shoulder perspectives would be interrupted by zoom ins or outs to variations of close-up, medium or full body shots. Long takes are also usually employed. But always, in the three films chosen for this study, camera movement is constricted within a claustrophobic, labyrinthine space: the slums for Kubrador, the dilapidated cinemahouse for Serbis, and the prison for Ranchero.

These aesthetic choices are due to a confluence of a number of factors, not just production constraints, as has been mentioned earlier. Another is the venue and audience that film festivals and local universities provide, instead of the usual local popular audience. Being mainstream, the gloss is intended for the popular audience who buy tickets in commercial cinema houses. Independent cinema however has a different audience. It targets more the studentry being required by their professors to watch, therefore the academe, and also the art film enthusiasts. While mainstream cinema mainly functions as entertainment, independent cinema derives its function from being socially relevant. Thus the predilection of independent cinema for topics on poverty and social concerns not usually palatable to the popular audience. Topics that could spur debate in classes and other venues.

This move by independent cinema to develop its own aesthetic away from the mainstream, said to be enslaved by popular tastes, instead of shaping them, is no longer surprising or new to Philippine history. All we have to do is look at parallels in Philippine literary history and to the age-old debate between Salvador Lopez and Jose Garcia Villa, both of them condemning the popularization of literature during the American period. Salvador Lopez’s answer however was to go the way of social relevance, while Villa went for art for arts’ sake. Bienvenido Lumbera in his essay “Kasaysayan at Tunguhin ng Pelikulang Pilipino” [History and Prospects of Filipino Cinema] already recognized these two strands in Philippine cinematic history, citing Lino Brocka as an illustration of the first and Ishmael Bernal of the second, which focused more on formal experimentations.(2)

Between the two strands, social relevance seems to be the direction that a majority of independent filmmakers are taking. Here is where we find the motivations for the grants given by Cinemalaya, Cinema One Originals, Cinemanila, and others. These festivals still opt, for instance, for narrative features rather than experimental films. Not so much an experimentation on form but an adventurousness in terms of theme and topic. Narratives features would mean that the film should still be accessible to the general public and not just to arthouse enthusiasts. It is just that the narrative theme and topic of these features veer away from the staple genres of comedy, action, drama, bomba and horror of mainstream cinema.

When independent cinema however derives its weight from being socially relevant, there appears the question of the aptness or effectivity of its chosen aesthetic. Perhaps this is why there is always the nagging question of whether this kind of aesthetic, instead of creating awareness, exoticizes the very condition it wishes to criticize. Dissecting the aesthetic of the three Filipino independent films chosen for this study, we find that it has three elements. First is the single location shooting. Of course production-wise, it is a matter of exigency. But aesthetic-wise however this single location shooting (wherein the camera meanders inside the slums for Kubrador, the dilapidated cinema house in Serbis and the prison in Ranchero), has but one option in relating to the space it utilizes. Since the camera does not leave the place, it dwells or lives in it. The space depicted would always come out as something habitable. It is not therefore surprising that in the three films we get to see all the characters residing in the places mentioned. In Kubrador, we see Amy (Gina Pareño) adeptly navigating the labyrinthine spaces of the slums. We see how the slums provide space for social interaction, to establish social relationships, despite being physically constricting. Life as it were persists. In Serbis, the dilapidated cinemahouse does not only provide business for the Pineda family but also a home, in its cavities, dark rooms and unused corners. Perhaps most striking of all is how Ranchero starts with Richard (Archie Adamos) lazily wakes up and goes about his daily routine of washing his face and brushing his teeth. But as the camera slowly zooms out, in one long take, we discover that Richard is inside a prison cell. The message is quite clear. These places, to the camera, become surprisingly habitable. Individuals do inhabit these spaces. In dwelling in these places, the camera seeks to make the slums, the cinema and prison familiar to the audience. They become just like any other regular home.

Aside from this revelation however this kind of treatment of space runs out of possibilities. It is therefore not surprising that the three films presented here all ended with their characters getting trapped in these spaces. Kubrador for example effectively renders on screen how Amy eerily gets lost in the slums despite its familiarity. In Ranchero, Richard’s hope of getting released from prison that day gets snuffed when violence erupts inside the prison he considers home. There is no salvation in these spaces. In Serbis, the only answer Alan (Coco Martin) finds is to abandon this space entirely. Its habitability is just an illusion the individual creates for himself to endure living in these spaces. This kind of insight has already been achieved in Lino Brocka’s films, for example in Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag [Manila in the Claws of Neon] (1975) where Julio Madiaga (Bembol Roco) literally gets cornered at the end of the film. And even then, this narrative sensibility has already been criticized, by Ricardo Lee no less, who at that time lamented about the inadequacy of stopping at social awareness in terms of social analysis. The title of his essay was “Ang Lipunan Bilang Isang Bilangguang Putik.” [The Society as a Mud-Prison] (3) This aesthetic does not present new insights in terms of treatment of space other than presenting the reality of this space as being shockingly habitable despite its poverty. In this sense, the three films are exoticizing poverty in their treatment of space. Exoticizing when we use the definition of Mikhail Bakhtin in his study of chronotopes (or time spaces) in narratives. He says: “Exoticism presupposes a deliberate opposition of what is alien to what is one’s own, the otherness of what is foreign is emphasized, savored, as it were, and elaborately depicted against an implied background of one’s own ordinary and familiar world.”(4)

What is new however in these three films and which are absent in the Brocka films are the singularity and presence of the involved camera. And this is the second element. We do not see panoramic establishing shots being done for their own sake. If ever there is a panoramic shot, it is always from a specific character’s point of view. When we explore the slums, cinemahouse and prison, it is through the eyes of their inhabitants. The camera participates in the subjectivity of the characters. The camera is not looking from the outside, or looking in at the lives of the characters. The camera is one with the characters. The camera is not presenting the characters to the audience. The camera shares in the experience of the characters. Viewing these three films then, there is a felt immediacy in watching the screen because of this camerawork.

The effect of this is first, the sympathy of the camera is almost always already biased for the character. The character’s integrity is no longer in question. The mere choice of the character is already a choice to side with him. The film then would unravel as an explanation of this choice. Why of all the many characters in the said space, the camera chose to follow this specific character. So that if the film fails, this choice becomes an apology for the shortcomings of the character. This is where perhaps this kind of aesthetic nears to that of the documentary, because the choice of topic in a documentary would already bias the camera to this character.

Serbis is not an exception to this even if the film follows multiple characters as they navigate the dark corridors of the cinemahouse. Serbis merely extends this aesthetic element to its limit. Despite the multiple characters, the camera treats them as one character living inside the cinemahouse. There is a singularity in the consciousness of the multiple characters. When Alan for example finally decides to abandon the place, it is telling that the camera does not follow him with a tracking shot. Instead the camera opts to stay with the perspective of the cinemahouse, looking at Alan from afar as he disappears in the crowd. Serbis in the end is not a story of multiple characters, but a story of place if we are to use the conventional categorizations of classical narrative. The character here is the cinemahouse. Thus when Nanay Flor (Gina Pareño) declares “Andaming dapat ayusin sa lugar na ito,” [There is a lot to fix in this place] this statement effectively sums up the entire film.

This aesthetic element however has its limitation. And this limitation resides in this very same strength of showing with an immediacy the subjectivity of a character. The fact that it shows the subjective world of the character, it presents the character’s predicament of being trapped in his/ her own world. When before, in the detached, observing, objective camera, we observe the characters as being beset from outside by different forces they are however helpless to fend off; now we see the characters as too self-contained in their own subjectivity. In Kubrador for example, Amy has no sense of the illegality of her work as a bet collector. To her, and we are forced to share this view by the aesthetic stance of the involved camera, she has to go through the motion of bet collecting to survive. The need for survival justifies her participation in the illegal numbers game. In Ranchero, the violence of prison life remains hidden only to reveal itself in the end with a violent riot among the inmates. There is an absoluteness in the rendition of a consciousness that is almost stifling. This would explain why there is a different take that is gaining currency now among films tackling poverty. Instead of picturing poverty as stifling, the characters are presented as happy and contented with their predicament. They do not problematize their predicament. They share the same problems as those of other social classes. It just so happens that they belong to a different social class. They also have their childhood. They also love. They also have dreams. There are no outside forces impinging on this absolute consciousness.

We then go back to the inadequacy of the first aesthetic element discussed earlier: that of ending with the sense of being trapped, which is always the endpoint of realistic or naturalist narratives. It is telling therefore why in Kubrador, the periodic relief of Amy’s character comes from a ghost, an absent unreal entity. At this point, what we are already looking for is the sense of agency that these aesthetic choices would withhold or provide us, the audience. It would appear that the singularity of the involved camera does not provide the audience with agency in the viewing experience. Because whatever insight this aesthetic element could provide would always be in accordance to a specific character’s interpretation of reality, which is almost always just a perpetuation of the same oppressive conditions.

With the detached objective camera, the audience is provided sufficient distance from the character to arrive at his own conclusions. The audience could have an entirely different insight from the character’s realization at the end of the film. But with the singular involved camera, the audience is forced to empathize with the character however delusional he or she may be.

The third element of this aesthetic of the meandering camera is time. The films under study are all set not only in the present, but in the quotidian. Both Serbis and Ranchero happened only in one day. Kubrador’s timeline spans only two days. Since this kind of aesthetic for the most part employs real time, it presents the conditions as they happen. Again the strength of this element lies in its capacity to bring the audience to participate in the day-in-a-life activity of the character. Its limitation however resides in the very nature of the present as something unstable and provisional. It is not surprising that all three films ended abruptly, with no neat conclusions. Just like all real life experiences at the end of the day. Neat conclusions for this aesthetic element would result in propaganda or proselytizing, since it would betray the fictitiousness of an orderly narrative. Perhaps this is the reason why, documentaries would always end with caveats on how or where their subjects ended up. Are they still alive or are they already dead? Because these would reveal in a non-categorical manner the point of the documentary. Independent film however could not afford this without breaking the illusion of its being fictional.

In conclusion, the aesthetic of the meandering camera has its strengths and limitations. But, so is any other aesthetic. What this paper has explored are the implications that these aesthetic choices would bear on the capacity of film to function in whatever manner, be it for entertainment or for social analysis. Kubrador, Serbis and Ranchero have already shown us the limits and full potential of this kind of aesthetic I dubbed as the meandering camera. I am not advocating that we abandon this aesthetic for a more objective and detached camera to provide the audience some distance from the subject. What I’m trying to say is that if this asthetic is already becoming a tendency among filmmakers positioning themselves against mainstream aesthetic, these are the limitations that they have to contend with which have deep ethical implications, as discussed. These are the dangers they will be falling into especially if this aesthetic would become a major factor, and I believe it is becoming one now, in negotiating a space for contemporary Philippine cinema in the local and international scene.

Alvin B. Yapan

  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
  • Lee, Ricardo. “Ang Lipunan Bilang Isang Bilangguang Putik.” Katipunan: Dyurnal ng Panlipunang Sining at Agham Blg. 3 & 4 (Hulyo & Oktubre 1971): 96-106.
  • Lumbera, Bienvenido. “Kasaysayan at Tunguhin ng Pelikulang Pilipino/ The History and Prospects of the Filipino Film.” In The Urian Anthology, 1970-1979. Ed. Nicanor Tiongson. Manila: Manuel L. Morato, 1983.
  • Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction. United Kingdon: Blackwell Publishing, 2000.
  1. Robert Stam, Film Theory: An Introduction (United Kingdon: Blackwell Publishing, 2000), 94-5.
  2. Bienvenido Lumbera, “Kasaysayan at Tunguhin ng Pelikulang Pilipino/ The History and Prospects of the Filipino Film,” in The Urian Anthology, 1970-1979 , ed. Nicanor Tiongson (Manila: Manuel L. Morato, 1983), 22-47.
  3. Ricardo Lee, “Ang Lipunan Bilang Isang Bilangguang Putik,” Katipunan: Dyurnal ng Panlipunang Sining at Agham Blg. 3 & 4 (Hulyo & Oktubre 1971): 96-106. [Society as a Prison of Mud, Katipunan: Journal of Social Arts and Science #3&4]
  4. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 101.


HarryTuttle said...

Alexis Tioseco sent me last year this transcript of a lecture he attended too at ASEACC. Even though the films discussed aren't typical CCC films, I liked this insightful comment about the particular perspective/camerawork that is also found in CCC. I wanted to post it here. He said he was considering publishing it at Criticine... Now I would like to publish it here in his memory. I tried to contact Alvin Yapan and Criticine for months to no avail. So I hope all parties involved will not mind if this article appears here. Contact me if you want it taken down.

Adrian Mendizabal said...

hmm... who is the new editor in chief of criticine right now? but i prefer this one to be published.

HarryTuttle said...

No idea. They didnt reply to my email.