Contesting Visibilities, Contextualizing Desires
Sa The Bakla Review, ang diskurso ay parang brip: itinataas at ibinababa sa akmang panahon. TBR has to be one of our favorite Philippine film blogs. Cris and I were recently chatting about TBR’s astute—and quite provocative—“10 Most Important Filipino Gay Films of the Decade” list. Though there are only a handful of gay films from the past decade which we really loved—among them The Thank You Girls and Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros—we do agree with TBR’s main criterion for the top ten list: indelible impact. Indeed, all the films in the list were important, whether for their breakthrough content, or their socio-political-economic implications for the industry.
Cris and I soon found ourselves going into a slightly lengthy discussion about the new Philippine gay cinema, why it is what it is, and what could possibly be in store for the next decade.
The tricky terrain of the visible
Which forms of visibility are the ones that shake up the world,
and which ones just shake us down?
In describing Joselito Altarejos’ Ang Lalake sa Parola, TBR notes the prominence of nudity in the emergent gay cinema, saying that
the full frontal became the formula for gay box office draw. Hate it? Or love it, because in the fight for gay rights, visibility matters.
Cris problematizes TBR’s use of the term “visibility,” arguing that the emergent gay audience is, more than anything else, a new market. The struggle for gay rights, particularly in cinematic expression, has been coopted and capitalized upon to give birth to a new genre of films produced by an arguably exploitative system not unlike the mainstream.
In video stores, for example, the indie section is pretty much a gay soft porn section, distinctly populated by covers featuring men in various states of undress. These films, most of which are meticulously documented and reviewed by TBR, are fraught with images of various stereotypes. Many appear to be basically soft/porn, with storylines featuring frank sexuality pandering to various fetishes.
“When there are so few representations of one population in mainstream culture, that population tends to embrace all images that could embody them,” says Tina Krauss, in discussing the lesbian-oriented TV show The L Word. With the boom in queer visibility, she asks, “are we forcing those not represented back into the closet?” Indeed, as contributions to an increasingly visible local queer culture, how does the particular “queer persona” of the new Filipino gay cinema affect the intended audience—and what is there for homosexuals who do not necessarily fit into that kind of viewership? “Queers are then forced into an internal battle of quality versus quantity,” says Krauss. “Should we be happy that we are finally seeing ourselves on television or do we criticize these images for their use of existing stereotypes and their creation of new ones?”
Nudity and the struggle for gay rights
I, on the other hand, was bothered by the implied instrumentality of (phallic) visibility in the fight for gay rights. TBR is correct in describing the full frontal as a formula for gay box office hits. Many gay indie films count as part of their marketing strategy the leaking of uncut and sexually explicit photographs and videos of their male leads. Ironically, graphic disclosure seems to spur curiosity (but what else is there to be seen?) among viewers.
In other cases, some actors, many of them amateur, are inevitably drawn from onscreen performances into offscreen “services” for the financially capable segment of the viewership. Indeed, some gay videos are said to act as catalogues of some sort, which jack up the “marketability” of the featured performers. Which leads to the question: does male objectification have to be an inherent and institutionalized strategy of the gay movement in cinema? In the struggle to liberate desire, must gay men replicate to some extent the exploitation that patriarchy imposes upon women?
(Cris, however, cautioned me on comparing female objectification to male objectification. “Ang babae, kapag naobjectify, nanganganib ang buhay, baka ma-rape sa kalye o maging biktima ng VAW [violence against women],” he says. “Ang lalaki, walang ganung invitation. In fact, baliktad pa nga. Mapera man, yung bakla pa rin ang pinapatay.”)
We admit, we watch many of these gay films. More often than not, it’s for the sex. Cris watches more of them than I do, but he also uses the fast forward button more frequently (“to get to the juicy parts,” he says). I, the more prudish one, would try to stick it out through the whole film, and not infrequently, would confirm Cris’s suspicion that he didn’t miss much anyway.
Slavoj Žižek, in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, says that films arouse desire, and at the same time “keep[s] it at a safe distance, domesticating it, rendering it palpable.” How, then, can Cris and I judge viewers who try to overcome that cinematic distance via sexual contact with the actors themselves, when we share the same desires? The only difference, after all, is that these viewers can afford and/or are in a position to satisfy their desires for these actors, while we, poor spectators and reviewers, cannot. Even in desire, there are class dimensions.
Why is the new gay cinema this way? Because gay men have centuries of repressed libido to gather stories from. Because the country is wracked with poverty, and Filipinos, male or female, are increasingly forced to use their bodies as capital in order to survive. Because enterprising filmmakers put two and two together and used the latter to utilize the former—and produced a new gay film market along the way. The narrative of Filipino homosexuals is the narrative of the country, marked by colonialism, repression, exploitation, and against all these, the struggle for liberation. Bliss Cua Lim said it best: “Desire is the first to be colonized and the last to be freed.”
The gay baby in the gay bathwater
How, then, do we view the fledgling new gay cinema of the past decade? Cris and I agree that the simplest way to put it is this: that capitalist cooptation pervades oppositional struggle. Capitalism, after all, tolerates and even assimilates dissent—unless that dissent becomes genuinely threatening to capitalism itself. It would be wrong to completely bash or shun the gay indie scene because it is crappy. Its context, after all, is the larger crappiness of the mainstream, and the even larger crappiness of the homophobic, semi-colonial and semi-feudal Philippine society. Until the capitalist mode of production is dismantled, we will be hard-put to find a film industry where there is little exploitation, whether in the indie or mainstream, gay or not. In the meantime, resistance will only happen in pockets and interstices, the occasional gem in the stratum of coal.
This is precisely why criticism is so important. In the first place, argues Cris, “kung walang surge ng gay films, magkakaroon ba ng gay cinema criticism?” Without all the new Filipino gay films, with their contentious quality and content, would our beloved The Bakla Review have come into existence? There is a need to constantly appraise, theorize, and elevate discourse, especially on emergent areas like Philippine gay cinema. There can be no progress without criticism, and to paraphrase Martha Stewart, TBR is “a good thing.”
In the new gay cinema, there is much chaff but little wheat. But as in all harvests, the chaff is necessary, and the wheat is definitely worth the trouble. #
Entry filed under: Edgar Allan Paule, Filipino films, Writings. Tags: criticism, desire, filipino gay films, gay cinema, gay representation, gay visibility, libido, nudity, objectification, philippine gay cinema, queer representation, the bakla review.