cinema, culture, Film Notes, Media Studies Notes

Film: Art or Social Practice?

(These Film Studies Notes are my one-page notes on various articles or books on Film Studies / Media Studies which might interest students and teachers of Film or Media Studies.)

Film as Art or Film as Social Practice

While I was taking my MA in Media Studies, I usually debated with my professor, who film as Social Practicewas also the Dean. She insisted that Films should be viewed only as reflecting Social Practice. I argued that a film must be viewed primarily as a creative work, as Art. Many of the teachers were all trying to be politically correct, in other words, they try to appear as left-leaning and “progressive”.

Then one day, the officials of China’s state-run film school held a symposium at the College. To settle once and for all if Films should be viewed as Art or as Social Practice, I asked the head of the Chinese school his opinion during the open forum. The Chinese film professor said, that of course, Film must be viewed as Art. “If you want social practice,”he said, “read the newspapers!” I really laughed after that because the teachers, especially the Dean who was my professor at that time in the course Film as Social Practice, knew exactly what I was getting at.

Films, of course can be viewed as Social Practice, but first and foremost, film is a work of art.

I found this among my notes on Film Studies:

CULTURAL STUDIES AND FILM Film Studies and Cultural Studies are both interested in textual analysis of films as well as the historical and political economy that film as Subversive Artsurrounds the production of films. The most glaring difference is that Film Studies is focused on the text and is concerned with aesthetic value. Cultural Studies dismisses aesthetic value altogether and focuses on audience analysis.

In the 1950s, Film Studies received a big boost from Cahier du Cinema writers who considered mainstream Hollywood films as worthy of serious study. In the 60s, the auteur theory “legitimised” the critical studies on Hollywood mainstream directors like John Ford and Hitchcock. Also, film genres were given respectability; i.e., they were judged to be not mere formula driven shows but films that are worthy of study for their political economy as well as artistic potential. In the 70s, when cultural studies was still in its infancy, film studies developed analytical paradigms like the Structuralist (linguistics, semiotics) approach.

By the mid 70s, critical studies were also developing its own models. However, “its target was the nature of the political interests served by the patterns of meaning or strategies of representation such analyses uncovered.”

During that period, film studies were dominated by the so-called Screen theory which was based on semiotic-psychoanalytic theory of Metz and the Marxist theories of Althusser. Text was all-powerful and the subject-position theory became the film theory. But many opposed this view. Morley (1980), among others, argued for audience’s agency.

Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasures essay used this subject-position film theory to argue for the so-called male gaze. The feminists loved Mulvey’s arguments. But cultural studies writers “questioned the implicit proposition of a single, overly determined reading of the text.”

Today, the line dividing cultural and film studies are blurring. The best example is University of the Philippines’ M.A. in Media Studies, specializing in Film, program. This means that Cultural (Media) Studies subsumes Film Studies. But then, there were proposals to put up an M.A. in Film Arts program in the same school.


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Bangsa Moro, culture, Newspaper article

The Dragon in Lanao

This is an article I wrote for The Philippine Post (February 26, 2000). I posted this in my websites and in my blog, M-Reality: Body/Mind/Spirit. But in 2009, Blogger removed my blog, as well as numerous other blogs, due to alleged third-party malware. I am re-posting it here. It occupied one whole page in a newspaper. Surely, it deserves a page in the blogosphere.

dragon in lanao 2
The Philippine Post Feb. 26, 2000 

While watching the movie “Anna and the King”, I was amazed at the similarities of Thai and Moro cultures– the parasols, the royal banners, the dances and even the costumes. I realized that indeed, there are a lot of similarities among the Moros, the Indonesians, Malaysians, Borneans, Burmese, Cambodians and Laotians, especially among their royalty and nobility. Perhaps it is because they all belong to the same race — the Southern Mongol race.

One big difference however can be noted between these Muslim and non-Muslim nations: the presence or absence of the dragon in their arts and culture. Among the Muslims – the Moros, the Indonesians, the Borneans and the Malaysians, the dragon appears to be absent in their arts and architecture. On the other hand, in the arts and architecture of the Thais, the Cambodians, etc. are full of dragons just like in the arts and architecture of their racial cousins the Northern Mongols — the Chinese, Tibetans, Mongolians, Japanese, Koreans, etc.


The most logical explanation would be that the introduction of Islam created changes in the art forms of all nations who became Muslims. Images of humans and animals, be they mythical or real, are forbidden in Islam.

In the Arab world, calligraphy and arabesque designs flourished. In the Lanao sultanates, Maranao art is characterized by an S-shaped design known as the niyaga  motif. This geometrical design is found in practically all its art forms. It is however in architecture that it finds its most exalted place. The torogan, the Maranao royal house, would just be an ordinary house if it does not have the panolongs, the carved beams in front of the house. These beams are lavishly carved with the niyaga figure.

The prominence and location of the niyaga-filled panolongs plus the belief by old folks that the niyaga frightens and drives away evil spirits make one think that the niyaga is much more than a geometrical design. In fact, a look at these panolongs would immediately bring in images of the dragon.

dragon panolong
“Ang Dragon” by Clara Marie Asuncion Gonzales

Upon seeing a panolong, artist and web designer Clara Gonzales thought that it was a dragon’s head. Her design, inspired by the torogan‘s panolong, was titled “Ang Dragon.”

Filipino sociologist Prof. Juan Francisco hypothesized that with the coming of Islam, the Sarimanok was transformed into the niyaga, which he called the “metaphysical Sarimanok.” He maintained that this extends Maranao Prof. Nasagura Madale’s suggestion that the Maranaos later recognized their traditional art without regard for religion, and so stylized the niyaga and transformed it into the Sarimanok.

The Sarimanokis a mythical bird which according to legend was the messenger of dragon sarimanokroyalty. It is usually drawn with a fish dangling from its beak and/or from its claws.

It could be a representation of a kingfisher or other birds like hawks which can still be occasionally spotted catching fish from the lake’s surface.

But lovely birds used as messengers of royalty, much like homing pigeons, are not the stuff to frighten away evil spirits. Neither do they qualify to be the guardians of the royal houses. Rather, they are symbols of wealth, rank and status.

dragon leftTherefore, if the niyaga is a stylized representation of the animal guardian, then the Sarimanok would be a poor candidate for it. More probably, the niyaga figure is a stylized form of none other dragon rightthan the ancient protector of royalty, the Oriental dragons.

One time, while discussing the  Chinese year of the dragon, a niece, Commissioner Jamila Tamano-Lucman, asked me what I thought the niyaga represented. I said that I had always considered it to be a dragon. She asked me why. I answered that it could be one of the Chinese influences in Maranao culture, much like the Maranao martial art, kun tao, which belonged to the Shaolin school of kung fu.

My niece believes that the niyaga indeed represents dragons; but, not the mythical ones. She believes that a straggler dinosaur, much like the Loch (Lake) Ness monster, could have lived or its descendants might still be living in Lake Lanao.

The surface of Lake Lanao is about 2,300 feet above sea level. It is one of the highest lakes in the world. It is huge and deep. It is the deepest (112 meters) and second biggest lake in the Philippines. Some geologists believe that the lake must have been the crater of a huge volcano.

Near Lake Lanao is Lake Dapao. It is a deep, dark lake with an air of mystery around it not unlike the Loch Ness. Could there be an underwater or subterranean connection between the two lakes? A Jurassic creature trapped under these lakes is not impossible.

Come to think of it, in the Maranao epic, the Darangen, there are monsters that are described as “crocodiles as big as mountains.” They are usually depicted as protectors of the royal clans. Could they be memories of giant reptiles living under the lake?

dragon Loch ness
Purported photo of Loch Ness monster