The General is Dead But We Are Here: Some Things About Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna*


*Rebyu ng Heneral Luna ni Jerrold Tarog that saw print in the September 26-October 02 issue of Baguio Chronicle. Regarding this printed review, naku, Jesa had some sweet-slapping comments that made me nod, made me nod in smiling agreement: I am a selfish writer daw, I do not think about my readers. It is hard to read the essay daw in one seating; too demanding. So most likely to be ignored. The comment was in light of the appearance of the lengthy essay in Chronicle. It was text-heavy, na syempre, must be faulted not with the lay-outing at all but with my, yun nga, ‘selfishness’ as writer.

Anyway, here is length of it, and shots of the text-heavy thing that appeared in Baguio Chronicle

This is the opening paragraph.
This is the opening paragraph.
This is the last paragraph.
This is the last paragraph.

How many more stabs can Heneral Luna endure – he rose to life again because of the movie by Jerrold Tarrog which has been creating buzz all over the social media recently, he rose to life finally after heaped under the likes of Bonifacio, Tandang Sora, Rizal and Mabini – before he finally heaves the heave of death? Is this possible – heaving the heave of death – now that he is just a memory, a collection of historians’ accounts, a page in a book, a Wikipedia entry, and now a film fuelling all sorts of debates and discussions among various people? In an interview with Pia Hontiveros, the producer of Heneral Luna, together with director Tarog and actor Art Acuna avowed that the number of stabs and gunshots Heneral Luna received before dying will not go lower than 40. Now, through this film which presents a view of Luna’s life and death, we come in as audience and readers trying to put substance to what  filled such life and what preceded such death – his ‘nationalism,’ his hotheadedness, his intriguing affair with “Isabel,” his bravery and unparalleled esteem for discipline – and in doing that, we participate in birthing and killing him anew and again, continually making sense of his person and more importantly, the historical juncture wherein he participated.

Luna is in peace in his grave now but with the prompting of Tarog’s Heneral Luna, a chance to excavate our own history and at the same time, the manner by which we view such and position ourselves in relation to that history has been presented. As differing opinions and perspectives get spewed more by the days, we might have slide from premature adulation of the hero to a more skeptic view of his character. Even more than that, our focus of attention might have changed from the film itself and everything we could have argued it contains to the larger social setup where it was produced and where we obtain the conceptual resources with which we try to make sense of the film.

Changing Lenses

I watched Heneral Luna last September 15, primarily after the invitation of Jesa who herself was invited by our friend who is a university instructor and who brought her class with her the second time she saw the film. We were initially awed by the film, awed mainly by the balls of the film to show what it has shown: the interests that divided Aguinaldo’s Cabinet in the face of another colonizer; the particular self-expediency of Pedro Paterno and Felix Buencamino; Luna’s brazen threat to shoot an elderly out in the public supposedly in the name of discipline and no one being above the law, even the President; and finally, the bloody murder of Luna by his fellowmen, suspected to be Aguinaldo’s men, which only reverts back to the first point and clues in on one of the factors why the Americans succeeded in its colonial venture.

Relying mainly on our initial affective responses to the film, Jesa and DM and I were murmuring praises in the form of gasps and heaves, professing immediate, tiny critiques, points, realizations. Afterwards, we went out of the movie theater, back to the only cool, non-air-conditioned mall from the stalwart both in mall-making and contractualization of workers. We were trying to remain at the bosoms of the film: the ample blood and the nasty treachery and the nobility it appeared to be opposed with and then the defeat of the Philippine Revolution against the American colonizers – this last thing brought about less directly by the film itself than by stock knowledge and, why not, swarms of McDonalds and Starbucks swarming most of us daily or the fact that our Constitution is, as a euphemism, ‘based’ from that of America.

Later in the evening, Jesa and I were talking about the film as we walked our way home. We were agreeing with the way we think the film was pricking at our sense of history while implicating the ways institutions such as schools and media inadequately and unsubstantially, if not inaccurately, present and teach history. We have not even come yet to question the very design of such setup where it is as if history is merely passed from one to the other, in a one-directional, uncritical manner, instead of creating various venues where history can be talked about and engaged by many people. We were reaffirming notions of history as not as simplistic as the hackneyed, “study of the past.” Regarding this, we have at least two objections: history is about the past as it is about the present for there will only be temporal contiguities and not compartmentalization. Second, history is lived as much as it is studied.  History is playing right now, and we are all there in the seeming maelstrom, perhaps dancing with it, perhaps itching to smash whatever is playing, change the tune it is playing.

It was a good day overall. On the day we watched Heneral Luna, September 15, I am thinking I can speak for Jesa too that the film made our day then. The next days will be the same in a way: there is still Heneral Luna in our social media accounts, getting the raves I thought it deserves; raves I thought are good as it suggests the public attention Heneral Luna was creating. But the next days were also different in another way: tinctures of awe gave way for doses of disturbance.

The Marcos Funding and the “Autonomy” of Art

September 16: Janine, our university instructor-friend who invited Jesa to watch Heneral Luna the same day as her, published a note in Facebook. Entitled “Negosyo Muna Bago Bayan” Ang SM bilang Kaaway ni Heneral Luna,” it would later be published in The Northern Dispatch, a local newspaper in Baguio.

In this essay, Janine points fingers at SM because “wala silang pakialam sa saysay (na mayroon sa kasaysayan) ng mga pelikulang pinapalabas nila, lalo na sa mas malaking cultural na saklaw ng pelikula bilang isang porma ng sining, basta’s mapuno lamang ng salapi ang kanilang mga bulsa.” Aside from SM’s saliva for profit, she further suspects that the reduced screening time for Heneral Luna might be “dahil na rin sa makabayang nilalamang maaaring pumukaw sa ikawawasak ng kanilang negosyo – sa mga panawagan ni Heneral Luna ng radikal na pagbabago tungo sa isang baying nagsasarili.”

At the time I read her note, I have already seen numerous feedback to the film, mostly from short, general status updates from Facebook friends and given the demography of my friends at Facebook, the feedbacks were largely positive: hailing Heneral Luna for its progressive content, pointing out connections between the Luna’s time and the present; how the state of things has little changed given our continued enslavement under US and the corruption in the national leadership. In other words, most of the feedbacks were concentrating on the content of the film. On the other hand, in her note, Janine called attention to factors ‘external’ to the film but which bears on the extent by which it can impact the people. Again, it is thanks to Facebook that I will be informed that it is not only in Baguio that the screening of Heneral Luna is being curtailed. The manner of distribution, or the limiting thereof, of a film many perceived to have progressive content, was rarely assessed. Then: a few more days.

Calls to keep Heneral Luna in the theaters surfaced as response to news about dwindling numbers of movie houses showing the film. And then an information, a sort-of vital one for me, especially with the way I look at the film, leaked: funding from the Marcoses was said to help in making the production of Heneral Luna possible. Janine broached this information when she commented on the link of her note I shared in my Timeline. This led to an exchange about the ‘autonomy’ of art which I suspected she brought up because the angle of Marcos funding may ‘besmirch’ Heneral Luna and cancel all its thought-provoking, if not potentially progressive content. I agreed with her about the need to safeguard the ‘autonomy’ of art in the face of unavoidable compromises such as the one exemplified by the Marcos funding angle, as artistic production cannot fully extricate itself from the web of relations in the society where it operates. This autonomy is certainly not absolute though – what is absolute anyway? – and this means that interpreters and audience must be made aware of ‘external’ factors like this which, more than shape the way they make sense of the film in itself, must help them view the film in its larger situation. In this way, art can be understood in more complex, hopefully more enriching manners: in terms of its content, its form and strategies and in terms of its conditions of possibility.

It works more as an investment, a profit-making venture that oftentimes rehashes rather than as a cultural stimulant, a cultural midwife, a tool aware of its traditions while also seeking to extend it, a tool aware of its societal context while also seeking to point beyond it.

Plumbing this question of conditions of possibility will likely lead one to the presently available resources for artistic production in a country like the Philippines where massive and incommensurate funds are being allocated for debt services and the military but not for supposedly basic services like schooling and health care. It is from this context that, if it is true at all, the people behind Heneral Luna’s receiving, willfully or reluctantly so, of the funds from Marcos can be taken less with an outright denunciation. Without that funding, my favorite scene, your favorite scene, other people’s favorite scene — could be the stupefying murder scene that culminates the film, the comic train scene where Luna scolded the relatives of officials —  might have not been done. Heck, even the entire film might not have been possible without that funding. Such is the state of most artistic production in the country today. It works more as an investment, a profit-making venture that oftentimes rehashes rather than as a cultural stimulant, a cultural midwife, a tool aware of its traditions while also seeking to extend it, a tool aware of its societal context while also seeking to point beyond it. With the logic of profit predominating, artistic works will find it hard to elude compromises that can delimit its vision. Artistic works will find it hard to extend the aesthetic traditions from which they stem; artistic works will find it hard to point beyond the societal context from which they spring.

A Glut in Meaning?

But here it is now, the logic of profit predominating in film-making, paving the way for many of us to watch Heneral Luna, to tackle the film among ourselves, to bring up various issues and to make various connections: colonialism in the past and neo-colonialism at the present, the loyalties and interests of Aguinaldo and his confreres, the way history is taught in schools. While other combats are being forged in order to contest the larger system from which film-making as money-and profit-driven enterprise is engendered, a similar, not unrelated contestation appears needed to be done in this realm of proliferating codes, meanings, significations. It is one thing to be glad that we all have a thing or two to say about Heneral Luna, or any cultural work or event for that matter, but it is another thing to let these sayings and postulations to remain dispersed, entrapped in the seductive post-structural playing with “differences without positive terms.” Enough of killing and birthing and killing anew Luna-the-memory, Luna-the-textbook-page, Luna-the-historical-account, Heneral-Luna-the-movie. If we get drunk with the seduction of a rather liberal “differences without positive terms,” differences that do away with being responsible for one another, no doubt, Heneral Luna and everything we have said and debated about him and the film will be lost in the forthcoming days, or weeks, without giving us anything – an insight, a practical task – that will be not just lasting, but also something that will be shared by most of us, if not each one of us: anything, an insight, a practical task, a call to action, a way to go on with our lives, our histories as persons, as nations, which we still share, in essence, with Antonio Luna.

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3 thoughts on “The General is Dead But We Are Here: Some Things About Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna*

  1. Came across this while browsing for news. To clarify: HENERAL LUNA only had a single financier: Fernando Ortigas. Imee Marcos was approached in the early stages of hunting for producers but nothing came out of it. The Marcoses have nothing to do with the project aside from polite acknowledgments in the end credits. Malinaw naman po sa credits kung sino ang mga involved. 🙂

    1. Pahabol: I don’t know where that chismis came from but I do feel that we should all commend Mr. Ortigas for this singular act of cultural heroism. As a filmmaker, I’ve always believed that the only way to start a change in the industry is to find a brave financier outside the system who’s willing to risk so much for the country. We found that in Nando. We all owe him big time.

    2. Naku, salamat Mr. Jerrold para sa paglilinaw na ito. Binalikan ko yung write-up, buti “was said to help” ang pagkaka-phrase. And yes, I think Mr. Ortigas deserves commendation, to an extent, especially given the kasaluyang kalakaran ng film “industry” sa ngayon. I can also feel that what he did was indeed a “brave” act from a business/financial standpoint pero I would also like to think that he trusted the material and the process that it required and the potentials it appeared to have, mas sa cultural at social na realm, for him to make that bold financial decision and I find that sweet too.

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