Updated: Jul 20
The man she is kissing, who is kissing her, fades into the gray stone wall of the background. He is darker in complexion, clad in a sweater. We can see a small, pale hand stealing around his waist. He leans over her. He should be the dominant figure in the scene, but it is she who commands the eye.
Her costume absorbs all the light, along with her skin. She is modestly dressed, yes immodestly displayed.
It is incendiary.
-Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez
In her book, Empire’s Mistress, Starring Isabel Rosario Cooper, Gonzales recalls the moral panic aroused by the first on-screen kiss in Philippine cinema. All that remains of the sudden advance is a still frame printed inside of a book, Motion Pictures in the Philippines (1952). The film built around the kiss, Ang Tatlong Hambog (1925), is otherwise lost.
Because the US and Japan annihilated Manila with artillery strikes near the end of World War II, and because Spanish and American colonizers installed the means to produce a local cinema (for profit and propaganda) but none to preserve it, much of Philippine cinema is gone. Some films survive only as books that compile what of their various materials (screenplay drafts, still frames, press) remain.
The public outcry to the kiss, between vaudeville turned screen actor Isabel Cooper (aka “Dimples”) and boxer Luis Tuason, also survives in print. Some critics blamed the degeneracy of Hollywood for inspiring such carnal image-making at home; most were fixated on the idea of the “immodest, modern Filipina” and felt, as Gonzales puts it, “authorized to police the dimensions of this fantastical figure.” But before the prudish Spaniards proselytized the Philippines, they remarked disdainfully of its peoples’ promiscuity. The US then inherited this evangelical mission, as well as the archipelago, from Spain after the Philippine Revolution.
Hollywood could not even imagine through fiction the forms of sexual liberation that were a reality in the pre-colonial Philippines. Yet here were devout Filipino critics upbraiding Filipino filmmakers for imitating a scandalousness that supposedly originated in Hollywood. Ultimately, this gridlock of misdirected arguments, Gonzales says, “also displaces and conceals the ongoing and foremost structural cause of this identity crisis—U.S. empire’s continuing presence in the Philippines.”
She then zeroes in on her thesis: “Passing judgment on Isabel Cooper, as the New Filipina, behaving outside the bounds of propriety is easier than taking too close a look at Isabel Cooper, mixed-race actress, embodiment of colonial rule’s enduring and perverse desires.”
I wonder about Hollywood’s capacity to misdirect us as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) joins writers on strike for the first time since 1960—when Ronald Reagan, as the guild’s 7th President, led negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) to win residual pay and seed money for a new union health insurance plan and a pension plan. Many SAG members felt Reagan conceded too soon for too little—a likely sell-out when a powerful figure (or few) is given the power to speak for many. I hope we don’t let current SAG President and Zionist Fran Drescher do the same.
I wonder about Hollywood’s capacity to misdirect us as Twitter users gauge the solidarity of celebrity actors and directors, like Christopher Nolan, who said his cast left the UK premiere of Oppenheimer supposedly to “write their picket signs.” I remember when Dunkirk set decorator Gary Fettis bragged in the book companion to the film (an example of how blockbusters are luxuriously preserved as they’re being made) about using free prison labor to save the production money. I remember hearing about how AT&T tracked customer metadata to gauge where people were most likely to ignore covid mandates (and thus likely to go to a movie theater) to decide where to release Tenet theatrically.
The strike has cleared the air of much of Hollywood’s usual smoke and mirrors; it is clearer that those who stand to benefit from a movie business not owned by its workers are vastly outnumbered by those workers.
A river connects parts 1 & 2 of this special edition bulletin. In part 1, Entre Film Center co-founder C. Diaz refers to the Rio Grande river twice: first to its history as a “dividing force” between Mexico and Texas and second to its potential to serve as a “common thread… connecting all of us.”
In part 2, screenwriter Ricky Lee, while talking about books as film preservation in the Philippines, says, “Filmmaking is one long river, and whether we are conscious [of it] or not—whether we like it or not—we all draw from that river.”
Here, a metaphorical river connects the US and the Philippines, as it might connect another empire and a place that empire won’t let go. Some of us take, whether or not we can comprehend that the history and the river we take from are shared.
Part 2 features two more articles: Jason Tan Liwag’s aforementioned piece on book making as film preservation in the Philippines and Viridiana Marin’s reflection on her work with Salón de Cines Múltiples (SACIMU), a brand new nomadic cinema collective, and the past “cineclubs and traveling exhibitors” of Oaxaca that inspired it.
As the Hollywood drama becomes a real one between workers and studios, I hope the industry’s misdirecting fictions come undone under the spotlight, and that our common history, like a river, can unite the scattered anti-capitalist communities that are organizing, with sustainable creative expression, elsewhere.