The past—what is it? L. P. Hartley, in The Go-Between, sees it as distant and incomprehensible: “The past is another country. They do things differently there.” William Faulkner, in Requiem for a Nun, sees it as alive and organic: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
This issue discusses time in similar terms—as contradictory, distant, close, living, unknown. Neepa Majumdar guest edits the dossier “Early Cinema in South Asia: The Problem of the Archive,” on the difficulties of searching and grasping the remote and/or undocumented past. In her essay “What is ‘Early’ Cinema?,” she sets a vibrant and creative frame through which to look at these endeavors:
What I’ve found in actual practice is that established theoretical frameworks demand constant retooling or even dismantling in response to the realities on the ground, and this is where there are exciting new challenges to film studies as a field.
Her posit—that the need to adjust the established framework can be the jumpstart to seeing all material differently—strikes the point of how important it is to view past decades with an open eye and, in any analysis, to allow for what can’t be known. This perspective isn’t only about the far past. Even a relatively familiar film, for example an American film made in 1972 such as Superfly (Gordon Parks Jr., US), is elusive because 1972 will never have an exact translation to present times. The past of 1972 is both ever present in today’s life and is a place where things are done differently. A political stance in 1972, a use of a color in 1972, or [End Page 127] a physical feature in 1972 is so steeped in the world of 1972—its milieu and its relationship with the past—that a scholar from 2013 can’t recognize it fully or give it true context.
Is the past just an “archive,” or is it a living space, an “undeclared world,” as Judith Gutman, in “Culture Counts,” states it? Her 1982 work on nineteenth-century Indian photographic images, Through Indian Eyes, argued that cultural forms are defined by the social perception of space and time from which they emerge. In this issue, her think-piece examines contemporary Indian work and the forceful energy embedded in its relationship to the past.
The dossier, “Cinema as Timepiece: Critical Perspectives on The Clock,” guest edited by Catherine Russell, about Christian Marclay’s The Clock, the popular, complex 24-hour loop film, critically places ideas of time as a taxonomy and art as part of that taxonomy in the larger arena of time as personal. The Clock, with its mechanization on the one hand and its personalization on the other, in this dossier becomes a place to examine aspects of how time can be studied.
The final section, Scott MacDonald’s conversations with the Sensory Ethnography Laboratory filmmakers Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, J. P. Sniadecki, Stephanie Spray, and Véréna Paravel, are about the Avant-Doc, or the avant-garde documentary form, and its break with old paradigms. The long interview, with its in-depth details, its subjective and shifting conversational voice, its repetitions, its easy, adamant opinion, its uncertainty and its sureness, is also a break with a paradigm. To read through it becomes a thought process that argues ideas much as an analysis in an essay’s detailed argument does.
Each of these subjects can throw light on the others. Each is experimental in its own way. The archive (be it of film outtakes, scant footage, or everyday life) is in an experimental state that is ever alive, static, impoverished, stuffed, manipulated, monumental, or unclassifiable. Its open-minded researcher, examining its contents, is also an experimenting work in progress. [End Page 128]