Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Realism vs. Genre (and Film vs. Literature) in the Philippines

A long flashback that I promise is related to the really short main post in the last paragraph:

The biggest problem I had when defending my MA thesis, proving that there were elements of horror in some of the canonical short fiction of our National Artists, was my film background. The panelists felt that my using film theory as part of my defense for a comparative literature thesis was wrong because they were separate mediums. Whatever. Part of my defense included a definition of what is horror. I said that it went beyond vampires and zombies, and sometimes didn't even have to be supernatural at all. My example for this was The Passion of the Christ, whose screenplay, I said, had been nominated for a Stoker Award.

One of the panel responded, rather heatedly, I remember, that “I shouldn't use film awards as basis for a thesis on literature.” It took all my self-control to tell this professor with a Ph.D. that the Stoker was *not* a film award. Another panelist wasn't sure what I had written about, so she spent the whole session nitpicking about my not following proper documentation, spacing, etc.

There were only two people in the room who knew what I was talking about. One was my thesis adviser, a lovely gentleman who not only encouraged me to pursue the topic of my choice, even though I had already been warned against it by a previous professor because genre was not academic enough, but also made sure that I finished my thesis, even if it meant barring me from going on Holy Week vacation. The other was a panelist who, for some reason, totally got what I was trying to say. Maybe she actually read my work. Hah! These two people understood that cinema and literature are intertwined, and that horror cannot be separated from “real life.” I don't know why the others didn't.

Here's the thing – the theories I used, even the way my thesis was structured, would have been old hat in any university outside this country. It would have been shot down because it was unimaginative, not because it wasn't academic.

Mixing film and literature certainly wasn't a problem in my undergrad thesis, where my adviser, a noted cultural expert and a man so brilliant I had to wear sunglasses whenever met with him (he also had his own secret fan club, of which I was a member – Hi, Sir!) seemed surprised that a. my writing was not intelligible (“You can write!” he said, shocked and surprised, after I had given him one of my short stories to read) and b. That I should choose to do a written thesis instead of making a film like everyone else. It got to the point where he'd admit to not reading the drafts and chapters I'd submit because, he said, “Ikaw naman, eh” (It's you, anyway). He liked that a thesis on film theory should include references to literature. Or if he didn't, at least I didn't get any flack for it.

I'm lucky to have had such incredible luck with my thesis advisers. It's very encouraging to know that not everyone in the academe is a stuffy old bag who refuses to change with the times. It's sad that many university professors here still think of genre as beneath them. As if realism was the only accepted mode of writing. But in a country where you have stories of alleged manananggal attacks on the evening news, what constitutes “realism”? Could this be an argument that the Philippines is incapable of spawning a tradition in horror literature because, by virtue of our culture, anything supernatural would automatically qualify as “realism”? I is befuddled.

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