February 16, 2007

Dekada '70 A Not So '70s Film

By: Edwin Manalo

Being a self admitted film buff, my weekends are reserved to satisfy my film viewing addiction. Having Netflix as my supplier for one of my healthier vices is definitely money well spent. I've been watching a lot of foreign films as of late, and it was time to replenish my queue. I was browsing through the seemingly endless list of titles, and one title popped out as if it were on a marquee with bright neon lights; not because it was in another foreign language which I did not speak, but because it seemed a bit closer to home... could it be? I clicked on the title's link and sure enough, it was a Tagalog film: Dekada '70s.

The synopsis read:
Chito S. Rono directs the story of the middle-class Bartolome family and their matriarch, Amanda (Vilma Santos), as they become swept up in the Philippines 's political turmoil of the 1970s. This potent drama follows the developing lives of each of Amanda's five sons and the varied paths they choose in response to political arrests, bombings and the establishment of martial law -- events that ultimately lead Amanda to make a stand of her own. (Synopsis from Netflix)

Ah! Here we are. Excellent! Here was a movie about a family struggling to live a normal life during the hardships of martial law in the '70s. Wow! I couldn't get over the fact that someone had finally made a film that was set in ''70s Manila . That's a damn huge undertaking. For someone who is absolutely fascinated with the ''70s (and also lived through it), this film really sparked my interest. But then I started thinking hard... I tried my darndest to remember the last really good Filipino film I saw that was actually made in the last decade. The last one I saw worth remembering was Manila By Night, City After Dark: Ishmael Bernal's masterpiece, which was made in the year 1980. I couldn't help but ask myself: "How good... or how bad could Dekada ''70 be?" Would Star Cinema be able to deliver a critically acclaimed film? Would they really be able to capture '70s Manila ?! I sniffed around for online film reviews, and just as I suspected: every single one had praised the movie using up all the good adjectives in the dictionary. One film critic even praised it as if it were the best Filipino film ever made! Too many good reviews and not one single bad one had me suspicious. I started to have my doubts about the film, so naturally I had to find out for myself, right? So in one click, I ordered the movie be delivered to me; the spoils of modern technology.

Two days later I found it in my mailbox. I wasted no time and immediately began to watch the film that had tugged at my curiosity a few days earlier. I reminded myself... "Keep an open mind." The film begins; I watch closely. The locations scouted for the shots were okay. They found this pleasant-looking house complete with all its furnishings that would fit the elusive '70s look. So far so good on location spots. But as a viewer I almost immediately had to adjust to the acting. Adjust? I feel it's almost necessary to adjust. In comparison to really good films, you begin to notice a few nuances when you start to watch Filipino movies, especially those that were made during the last decade. One of these (which never fails), is that the characters are often found shouting at one another. It seems a bit naive to think that the only way to portray conflict between characters is through a yelling match, or an exaggerated raising of voices. One should not be limited to thinking that this is due to some cultural shade of difference. Please do not be mistaken, as this is not so. Good films are usually spared from this type of acting which is often saved for noontime soaps. Many a skilled director would agree that there are many ways to illustrate disagreement, or convey tension between characters. A lot of shouting doesn't really help in making a particular scene better. Subtlety used wisely can be very powerful, which is why most celebrated film makers will argue that more often than not, "less is more". So true.

So let's talk about acting. I've attended many acting workshops in my younger days, and have also been privileged enough to study film making. Some of my good friends are film school graduates, and others are professional working actors in New York City and Los Angeles . So what's the first thing they teach you in acting class? What's that most important thing you have to remember as an actor? It's really quite simple... You have to make the audience believe! Ask any seasoned actor. Whether it be Nora Aunor or Meryl Streep; they will tell you that your goal as an actor, is to make your audience believe in your performance. You have to make them forget that you are an actor playing a role. They have to see that you are someone who has transformed, to the point that you are somewhat unrecognizable from your autograph-signing public persona. That for the duration of your performance, you become the character. You are the character! There is a book by Eric Morris (a veteran acting teacher) that is entitled "No Acting Please." The book contains exercises which instruct the actor to systematically eliminate his or her instrumental obstacles: tensions, fears, inhibitions, and explore the "being" state, so that the actor does no more and no less than what he or she feels. The actor simply does "no more" than what is necessary.

The young actors that were cast in Dekada '70 were all guilty of doing too much "acting". I don't think actors should be acting-out, or (in this case) over-acting, unless they were filming a farce, or a comedic parody. Inexcusable mediocre performances plagued every scene. Instead of ensuring the characters were having a real conversation (real interaction), it seemed as though they were merely spitting out lines which they had memorized word-for-word, the delivery, inflections, and pauses unnatural. People don't talk to each other like this in real life now, do they? Of course not. It is sometimes possible for a younger actor to deliver a satisfactory performance though the guiding hand of an experienced veteran. This of course is quite rare, as it calls for a unique, uncalculated, natural chemistry that can never be faked. Award winning greats like Vilma Santos and Christopher De Leon should never be subjected to work with a group of inexperienced pretty faces who are incapable of displaying a sense of depth and sophistication. Proof that casting makes for a vital element that determines the success of a film.

It's all in the details. Another crucial element to keep in mind when making a film, is paying close attention to the details; especially when you're making a film that tells a story which is set in a very particular time period. This sort of film is the most difficult type of film to produce. Why? Because to pull off such a project, one has to set a certain standard for tuning-in to all the fine little details. To somehow transport your audience back in time, while maintaining a sense of realism is not an easy task. Many don't realize how much film makers pay so much attention to detail. Films like: Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel), City of God (Fernando Meirelles , Katia Lund), CQ (Roman Coppola), or more recently, The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald), are all fine examples of films that have meticulously paid so much attention to the tiny little details. These films have done this task so well that they have seamlessly captured their respective time periods.

A word of caution: Wearing bellbottoms, tight shirts, wearing something made of polyester, or sporting a badly made wig does not, and will not automatically transport your audience back to the '70s. Talking about riding the air-conditioned Love Bus, or mentioning the Aldeguer Sisters won't do the same either. The audience must believe that they are witnessing real people struggle in a particular point in history. In this film, it is tragic that the audience is burdened with the major flaw of having to watch their showbiz idols dressed up in silly Halloween-like costumes. But isn't that what the '70s looked like? Didn't people wear outfits that looked like what someone would to a Halloween party? Only to an ignorant fool who had no idea of what the '70s was really like. The '70s look, or style is often misrepresented with horrifying interpretations of someone who never did their homework. I doubt that the production team did any research or any serious digging before they actually began shooting. It takes a long time to plan for this sort of project. Pre-production usually take a few years, longer than the time spent on actual filming. It is the production team's responsibility to make sure that the quality of what they are about to film is releasable and worth seeing. Did the production company feel that "the details" weren't so important? That it was more important was to hire hot young stars to ensure top box office sales? It's highly possible.

Many us would agree, that it is often this "pwede na yan" ("that's good enough") attitude, that is responsible for the downfall of the present world of Filipino entertainment. I make sure to incldue the word "present", as I do acknowledge the genious of Filipino director legends such as Lino Brocka, and Ishmael Bernal. People today often boast of having access to the latest technology, but what good is this new technology when you don't pay attention to the details? "Pwede na yan!" No one will notice if we did some bad hair and makeup work on the actors. No one will notice the cameraman's refection on Christopher De Leon's eyeglass lenses, the boom mic's silhouette traced. No one will notice bad filming. No one will notice bad editing. There is no excuse for all those embarrassing blunders. There is also that poor excuse that blames film quality to the limitations of what ignorant people call a third world budget. Please! I've seen independent shorts that were produced with less than a third of this film's budget, and those films won awards at Sundance, and honors at various International Film Festivals.

135 minutes later, I was spent and exhausted by the film's inconsistent stop-go pacing, and choppy editing job. It was frustrating to watch a film in which the director's idea of subtlety was to intentionally bore an audience with unnecessary pauses, and the power of an actor's performance was measured by how loud he or she could belt out memorized dialogue. I had to laugh it off and smile at this film for all its entertainment value, which by now you should know does not mean giving praise to the film. After all, I guess I was expecting too much from a film that had proudly cast the likes of: Carlos Agassi, Marvin Agustin, John Wayne Sace, Piolo Pascual, Ana Capri, Dimples Romana... Dimples? These are obviously the names of some of today's biggest young stars, but I'm quite certain that these are not names that belong to bonafide actors who take their craft seriously.

In the end, we question ourselves about the possibilities of making better films we can truly be proud of. Sure! Why not? Would we have to spend more money to push film quality? Not necessarily. There are so many ways of shooting a scene that it can be both powerful, have all the little fine details present, and yet the audience wouldn't have a clue that the scene was shot on a shoestring budget. The secret lies in the creativity, ingenuity, and vision of a powerful production team. Assembling the best creative minds and having them on board, to make sure all the fine little details have been given proper attention. Casting experienced actors as opposed to showbiz idols whose only true currency is face value. Hiring talents who have passion, and understand what it means to commit themselves to a role; that all this is necessary in order to deliver outstanding performances. And finally having the right director. One who understands the material so well as though he had lived the story himself. Film makers and actors should always think of their audience first, for it is the audience who is their true employers.

It's time we raise our standards not only as film makers, or actors, but to raise our standards in being Filipino. It is only after we eliminate this "pwede na yan" attitude that we will be on our way to capture the full attention of the rest of the world that we so much deserve.

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Anonymous said...

this is a well written article, with so many revealing truths about the current state of philippine cinema. i really hope the right people read this and learn from this. too many people out there are so afraid to say the truth which negates real change. kudos to you mr. manalo.

Anonymous said...

mahirap talaga gumawa ng pelikula na ganito kapag ang mga artista ay mga untalented teen idols. it's time to change standards talaga.

Anonymous said...

I was disappointed too when I saw the film. It is better to read the novel. The movie adaptation was not good.

You should see other movies like Dubai or Milan. We still have good writers and directors.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jepoy. The novel was much better. There are very few films that are as good as the book. Ya we have some good writers and directors left, but not as good as Ishmael Bernal. Good article this one.

Anonymous said...

time to raise the bar people. papano tayo uunlad if we dont raise the bar?

Didi said...

I have not had the chance to watch the film adaptation, but I was able to meet Ms. Lualhati Bautista! She came into our office one day and I was awestruck!! :) I searched and searched for my copy of Dekada and brought it to the office JUST IN CASE she'll drop by again - and when she did - I had her sign it!! Coolness!!

Anonymous said...

Ouch. I know that you were critiquing the movie and not the novel but still...

"Inexcusable mediocre performances plagued every scene."

"I had to laugh it off and smile at this film for all its entertainment value."

I think that by focusing too much on their wigs, location, outfits, acting, and intonation of their voices--you're missing what is most crucial about this film. The message behind this film is nowhere near mediocre or something to be laughed off. I know some people who have left you a comment already mentioned that the novel is better. Yes, it is. I can honestly say that Dekada '70 (the novel) is one of the most important pieces of literature Filipinos should read at least once in their lifetime. Not only does it inform Filipinos of what really happened to the country, from "how it all began" and "why..." and "who..." and all these questions concerning the government but there are so many other issues in Dekada '70 that deserves more attention instead of their acting. For example, the role of women not only in the 70's but their role in the Philippines since then until now, or how Julian is the way he is, afraid to show emotions because "men should be men" and all these gender roles and mentalities. And how about peoples' principles in the 70's? Noong ipinaglalaban ang bayan. It seems like these days, wala na yatang principles ang mga tao. There are so many issues in Dekada '70, attempting to list them all, in which I might fail to do so, is not only silly, it would be insulting to Lualhati Bautista. I am not disregarding what you wrote, not at all. In fact, I think you made a lot of good points since you are, after all, qualified to make these criticism towards the film since you are a movie buff and was raised in that era (I'm neither a movie buff nor was I born in the 70's. I was born in '82 and I'll choose a novel over a movie anytime). all I'm saying is that you made Dekada '70 sound like a mediocre film and by making it sound like a mediocre film, it is not difficult to make the association that the novel might be mediocre as well. I am not trying to stir anything or neither am I challenging your intellect towards the subject. I just hope that you read the novel and hopefully feel differently towards Dekada '70.

By the way, I was looking for a website where I could buy the novel, I borrowed a copy from the public library and was browsing where I could buy and I landed on your page.

Have a nice day. Peace to all and ingat.

Honolulu, HI

Anonymous said...

To Ronne,

It is clear that I wrote about the film and not the book, which is why people should not automatically assume that I am critiquing the book as well. You must first understand that the book and the film adaptation (which I wrote about in this article) are two seperate things.

I agree with all your sentiments about the message behind the film. It is quite obvious that the original material (the book), captures the turbulent times and truths about what it was like living in the '70s; which the film (in my opinion) failed to capture. I mentioned in this article that it's all in the "details". One must NEVER put off the fine little details, for it's these little details that make up for a true masterpiece.

The story deals with serious issues. If it is presented in an almost comical way due to often distracting, mediocre performances by teen idols, bad wardrobe, poor production design, ect, then it hard for one to take this film seriously.

Films that tell stories set in a particular time period deals with a lot of paying attention to the details. It's those little details that transport you to that time period, and make the film believable, and in the process really make its point. It would obviously take a lot of talent and creativity to pull off a film set in '70s Manila on a shoestring budget, but I know it can be done! Which is why I wrote this article. I am simply saying that we must raise our standards in filmmaking if we are to be ranked in the same league among the best in the world.

In the end, it's either make a really good film, or not make one at all, and leave the book alone. It's that simple.

E. Manalo

Anonymous said...

Dekada '70 was presented to us in class for our film analysis in Filipino. Although we haven't finished the movie (almost halfway), I think it may be the time to make a thought about it.
I agree with you definitely with all the aspects in the article, and yes, the Filipino filmmaking is at its downfall. This is the reason why many of us tend to watch foreign films (mainly because they are better).
I felt that the film itself lacks so much. It just lacks something that I cannot explain. Dir. Chito Rono may have produced a film that many of us applaud, but to my perspective, it's a mediocre film sadly. The script is a good thing for me, since much quotes were memorable to analyze. But overall, it doesn't go up the standard.
Maybe it is the time to make a reform on the Philippine cinema.

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