foreign countries, then and now

Recently, I read in some blog or something that you can tell a writer is a hack if they use the quote “The past is a foreign country” (from L.P. Hartley‘s 1953 novel The Go-Between). Maybe that’s true, but I don’t care, because I’ve always liked the phrase. Like some (not all) oft-repeated observations, it’s useful because it reminds you what it is so easy to forget: The past is not in fact just a version of the present with fewer iPhones. It’s its own thing entirely.

photo from d.billy via cc

photo from d.billy via cc

This ran through my mind the other day as I was reading this passage from Christian Metz, excerpted in Mast et al.’s Film Theory and Criticism anthology:

Now, it was precisely to the extent that the cinema confronted the problems of narration that, in the course of successive groupings, it came to produce a body of specific signifying procedures. Historians of the cinema generally agree in dating the beginning of the “cinema” as we know it in the period 1910–1915.

I’m finding Metz generally accessible, but maybe minus a few phrases like “specific signifying procedures,” which I think could just be replaced by the phrase “the ways filmmakers shoot and organize a movie so that the viewer understands a coherent fictional story.” That is, instead of having the viewer feel like she’s being subjected to a bunch of semi-random, only loosely related images.

If that still seems too abstract, take this, another passage from Metz that names some of the specific techniques — ones, you’ll note, that are standard-issue storytelling in today’s film:

Jean Mitry … examines the first occurrences of a certain number of procedures of filmic language — the close-up, the pan shot, the tracking shot, parallel montage, and interlaced, or alternative, montage — among the film primitives.

Maybe these phrases, things like “tracking shot,” sound familiar to you, but even if it doesn’t, I’m sure you’re used to seeing a tracking shot. Inasmuch as film is a “language,” the tracking shot and those other techniques are a language you speak even if you don’t know you speak it.

The point here is that these devices, which we take for granted today, had to be found at first, and were only refined through years of experiments and semi-conscious effort by filmmakers. Maybe they weren’t exactly invented from scratch, but they were at least at least stumbled upon as an effective way to transmit story. A (hopefully illustrative) thought experiment: Try imagining an American who doesn’t understand a film montage when seeing one — it’s nearly impossible to reasonably conjure up this imaginary person — and then think about a time when that was every American, because montages didn’t even exist. (I mean “montage” as it’s commonly used today. The word has various meanings, but I’m not trying to confuse you with one of the other ones.)

photo from Khánh Hmoong via cc

photo from Khánh Hmoong via cc

And this is how the past is a foreign country. In the past, they weren’t just missing films, they were missing, one can only assume, the understanding to watch our modern films. They didn’t speak our language.

I don’t know what it would mean to live in the past, but if it really was anything like living in a foreign country, I’m intrigued. The only countries outside of America that I could claim to know, by virtue of having spent several months in each, are France and Spain. The difference between countries, I found, wasn’t just in the cultural references I didn’t get at first — to Chikilicuatre in Spain, for example, or Jordy in France, to choose the trashiest examples possible. Those seem like tractable and incidental differences from American culture. But then, it’s not these that make the Madrid story the Madrid story or the Toulouse story the Toulouse story.

No, what makes those stories go is more difficult to describe but more important, translatable in some sort of terms, but still foreign. While I was in France, solidarité seemed like it was in the water, a kind of moral conscience raised up to the level of slogan. In Spain, it took me a while to understand how polite, sensible people had decided that being Nikki Sixx once a week wasn’t a bad idea. (And, in fact, it isn’t).

So, in consideration of these subtleties, I hereby reject the notion that “The past is a foreign country” is a hackneyed phrase and declare my intention to get it tattooed on the inside of my lower lip.

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