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The lion, the Atom, and the movie

When a movie gets buzz less for its merits than for matters aliunde, what we lawyers call extrinsic, then something is wrong. Citizen Jake is one of those, which is a shame, because it is the movie event of 2018 that deserves to have more viewers than it attracted. It marks the return of Mike de Leon, surely one of our country’s greatest directors, to the silver screen after almost two decades of cinematic absence, and as with most of his films, Citizen Jake has something to say. Now simply because a movie tackles a Very Important Topic does not guarantee that people will listen, a reality check that became painfully apparent when I went to watch it. There were only a handful of people there besides me—I think they were ushers—and word is that some cinemas had to cut the run short due to sales so sluggish even slugs were staying away.

Instead, Citizen Jake is in the news because de Leon went thermonuclear on his lead star, Atom Araullo. It can happen that directors and their actors do not get along, but the unwritten code is that they keep their feelings to themselves once the movie gets shown—it is simply bad form to badmouth each other because rancor may affect the movie’s chances at the box office. In the case of de Leon v. Araullo, the feud is being played out on social media, which began when de Leon, well, made his disappointment about Atom known in, well, no uncertain terms. That sparked Atom to come out with a, well, carefully-worded response to his director’s rant, to which the director riposted with another, well, fiery post. The nut-kicking is what I would submit as evidence of cold fusion.

There are many reasons why a film flops. A movie is probably one of the worst investments you can sink money into because there is never any guarantee that it will turn a profit, much less break even. Even movies starring A-list talent are not sure-fire blockbusters and the stakes are even higher for so-called “artistic” movies. These are films that have no pretension to commercial appeal but instead are passion projects of the people behind them. It isn’t hard to figure out why Citizen Jake arrived DOA at the box office: it was sandwiched between two science fiction franchises that gorged on the corpses of the competition. In other words, more thought should have been given to the release of Citizen Jake; it was like bringing a bowl of boiled spinach to a potluck dinner for carnivores. That, in essence, was it: Citizen Jake is a “spinach” movie—good for you but not especially appetizing.

My reading is that he director seems to be blaming the actor for not supporting the film, that is, failing to say a few good words that possibly would have enticed more people to watch. Here is the truth: no amount of publicity from anyone could have saved this film. It sank under the weight of its good intentions. It is unfair to blame Citizen Jake’s tanking on its star’s supposed inadequacies as an actor because, ultimately, the casting decision was made by the director. If the buck has to stop somewhere, it is with the director because all creative and financial decisions will be okayed by him. There appears to be a lot of blame-shifting going on; now imagine if the film had succeeded, would there have been an orgy of credit-grabbing. In show business, you have to take the bad with the good.

The regrettable thing is that in the middle of all this pointless squabbling, a good movie is falling through the cracks. To be more precise, a significant message is going unheard. However you angle it, Citizen Jake speaks on many levels as it examines martial law, corruption, dynasties, public accountability, social stratification, gender, among others. (I probably should not be identifying these things because I am effectively piling on kale, Brussels sprouts, alfalfa and assorted microgreens on top of the spinach.) The dramatic irony lies in the fact that moviegoers do not have to troop to Citizen Jake to see all these—all they have to do is look around them and realize that they are the stars of a badly-scripted movie that they themselves wrote, cast, directed and produced. Why pay to watch cinematic metaphors, why be figurative when the literal is literally in your face? Now tell me, is that escapism or what?

When a moviegoer buys a ticket, a contract is being made. The viewer covenants to hand over a certain sum of money to be entertained and the filmmaker covenants to entertain for 90 or so minutes. The entertainment happens inside the cinema and not by antics that have little to do with the movie. To all concerned, bury the hatchet, preferably not in Atom’s back.

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