Tenth Memoire: Screening The Past Askew

The pun of our journal’s name should not be ignored in the context of remembering what we hoped for it ten years ago and what it may actually have accomplished. On the face of it, the name tells everyone what we are about: visual media and history. But surely everyone also knows that in screening some things are kept back, some things never make it through the filter. So screening the past is looking at history selectively, as looking at that past on a screen must needs do.

I find that my memory is peculiarly selective. I tend to forget or discount most specific events and instead to remember ideas, aspirations, moods. This is not good history, because what was actually accomplished (or not) tends to get devalued in my recollections by what I dreamed of. What we did is held up against what (I think) we ought to have done.

Moreover, initially at least, it was the journal’s deliberate policy not to put forward a list of aims and high-minded policies. Instead, we wanted to see what would develop. Did we imagine an academic community whose contributions would interact with each other, us, the editorial board and the blank screen to produce something without much deliberate guidance at all? Free market scholarship. Anarcho-socialism in action. Very nineties. But then, it was the nineties.

It was not until May 1998 that an Editorial Policy was put in place, and by that time I knew that my involvement with the journal was nearly over anyway. (I retired in December of that year). The policy articulated then, and which remains the editorial policy of Screening The Past to this day, is deliberately “open” and unspecific. It does not even hint at most of the things I thought we ought to be doing. Those things, if they were to be accomplished, were to be achieved stealthily and according to rules of inclusion rather than stridently and exclusively. We would actively seek out and publish articles in areas we wanted to encourage rather than committing the journal to policies we might not actually have the scholarly base to support. As it happened, the journal would even generally downplay titled “themed issues” or sections of in favour of a kind of smorgasbord table of contents where one trawls for fodder to one’s taste.

Hidden agendas were not the whole story. Some the journal’s intentions were more or less open (although once again, not directly articulated in the Editorial Policy). A key part of what we were setting out to do was to explore the possibilities of the internet to deliver high quality academic material, using computing resources to produce reputable scholarship to international standards. For example, we realised that even though we were publishing (initially) only four times a year, we could still offer our contributors the chance to have academically refereed material published within a much shorter time than print journals were able to manage. We could also offer our subscribers the opportunity to read and print out that material within a shorter time frame. Conference proceedings, reports, or selected papers, could be out within a few months of when the conference in question had been held (for example Richard Paterson’s “Serving the nation in the digital era” and Tony Pearson’s “The PADS project at the University of Glasgow”, published in November 1999 and originally delivered at a conference that July).

But in other ways, we have hardly scratched the surface. For example, I remember a scheme to host the world’s first academic internet conference: papers put up at scheduled times with some days open for conference participants to reply and develop dialogues; real-time chat room panels; video conferencing; audio-video presentations … MOO parties and banquets (no, I made that part up). Internet conferencing still sounds like a good idea to me, and one that seems tailor made for development in the distant Antipodes.

It also seems to me that the journal declared itself from early on as a place that would be sympathetic to “revisionary” approaches and uncommon ways of understanding the screen. Many of our special issues have foregrounded such ideas: Adrian Martin’s mammoth survey of “the new auteurism” comes to mind (issues 12,13 and 14), and the groundbreaking issue 11, an untitled issue which yet for me sums up the journal’s most important scholarly aspirations. But any number of articles might be cited (among them Tim Groves’ “Entranced”). Most recently I have been struck by Des O’Rawe’s sketch for a radical, and singularly persuasive, new account of film style and theatricality in Japan in the first part of his article on Kitano’s Dolls.

I believe that Screening The Past was initially quite a big success. It did what it set out to do and gained about as much notice and positive reputation as could have been expected. That it achieved so much was, of course, due to Ina Bertrand. She had the idea. She persisted when commonsense would have told anyone else to stop. She kept everyone focused on whatever needed to be done. But, as she is the first to point out, the rest of us who were there at the beginning and through those first few years were essential as well. We did things she could not. We were her eyes and hands and minds. And we also contributed things she had not expected. That is, we all worked together.

My job was to oversee the “Classics” section, and whatever I was thinking the journal as a whole ought to do I also tried to do in that section, although some of my efforts never got beyond asking questions. My idea of a “classic” was something that most people might not know about and/or something not usually in the critical canon but which really ought to be. I helped to get prescient articles about archives, psychoanalysis, andtelecommunications back into publication – and we republished some of Vachel Lindsay’s poems about the cinema. In the 1998 Editorial Policy, “classics and re-runs” were conflated and identified as articles reprinted from another source. “Re-runs” had originally been intended to flag recently published material of contemporary interest and “classics” to refer to older writing that deserved to endure. The distinction was subtle, but I thought it made a difference early on, and it seems it did. After 1999, only the reprints of Dulac’s writing on newsreels in issue 12 have really qualified as “classics” in the original sense.

One of the areas the editors of the journal tried to foster at first was a community of interest between academics and archives. The first issue was pretty much all about that. Over the years Screening The Past has published pieces by archivists and pieces thought to be of interest to archivists and academic screen scholars alike. But in the end we didn’t succeed in bringing the two unworking communities together very well. Aside from certain pieces in that first issue, archivists usually didn’t, and don’t, think of Screening The Past as a place in which to publish or in which to read about archival issues. Academics didn’t, and don’t, read the pieces in which archival issues have been discussed. Perhaps we didn’t devote the effort and time needed to bring the groups together – or perhaps in current circumstances there is actually no ongoing community of interest of the sort we imagined.

Sometime, I don’t know when, during our editorial meetings I began to think of the journal as having a more specific agenda: to promote a truly international screen history. That is, we would take up a position in opposition to the Dominant Paradigm, which effectively held what happened in the United States up against the rest of the world. This was a perfectly logical, even boring, outgrowth of our position as the premiere internet screen historical journal: in the nineties the internet was commonly perceived as global and anarchistic. In the first place this oppositional globalism meant that we tended to downplay American film/television history – or, at least, standard narrative-cum-(production)-industry approaches to American screen history. In the second place, this meant that we ought to actively seek out contributions in areas of screen history (including distribution and exhibition) that might be significant but did not necessarily fit comfortably in with what was then current thinking.

By and large I think that Screening The Past has made itself an effective voice in international screen history, but I am disappointed that the journal did not insist upon promoting itself as an advocate of screen historical difference and that it was not more active in seeking out and fostering such approaches. There has been one exception to the “policy of sameness” that is so well expressed in the 1998 Editorial Policy, and that is Screening The Past‘s cultivation of the capacious documentary mode (see issues 4, 7, 13 and 17 as well as individual articles in almost every other issue) but in this the journal merely reproduces a handy and unthought fiction/non-fiction distinction that also informs the editorial policies of most other screen journals, including those devoted exclusively to documentary.

The principal reason for this key failure, however, is not editorial policy but lack of funding. From its beginning no substantial longterm support was available for the journal and what initial money there was had to be committed to developing a technological base. Yet what were (and still are) most urgently needed beyond that base are resources for making the journal better known and respected. These are crucial for two reasons. The first is that internet publication still has no cachet among the majority of academics. Despite the names on the editorial board of Screening The Past and despite its distinguished list of contributors, almost no one in the world thinks of this journal as one of the most prestigious places to be published. The second is that finding those who have done worthwhile work in international screen history requires a highly visible, aggressive and accessible international presence. An active public relations program, with brochures, mailing, emailing, and journal representatives working at key conferences around the world has been needed for the past ten years in order to establish Screening The Past in the minds of screen academics and others as the first choice for the most daring and best work in screen history. In addition, and crucially, an active network of translators would have to be developed and adequately compensated for their work in getting that super international scholarship into English. But those programs would cost money, the kind of money that granting bodies do not seem to want to give (money for publicity, money for travel, money for translation – come to think of it, money for all the things that politicians get money to do). And in this case much more money would be needed, because these publicity and translation programs would originate in Australia and not in the United States or Europe (travel costs to conferences would be higher, for one thing). To find the funds to enable the journal to realise its potential as the primary venue for international screen history did not seem to be possible during the years in which I was directly involved, nor has it been since.

I suppose that the one area in which the journal is known is its review section. This is because there are so many reviews, so many are interesting, so many are brief, and many are written by names that readers recognise. In the same way that Ina Bertrand’s vision and incredible hard work created the journal and made it known initially, Anna Dzenis’ matching dedication and exertion has made the reviews into Screening The Past‘s most rewarding feature. Editing such a section involves strong intervention. Reviewers are selected for books, contacted and cajoled; the books themselves are shipped out; the reviews then are sent back to the publishers. What results does not result from whatever happens to find itself in the in-box, but comes from an active, discriminatory policy that involves a lot of interaction with whomever is doing the writing.

As time went on, my personal editorial interest began to focus more and more on our own region. Again, this is a very nineties thing; the Asia-Pacific region was a big deal back then. But it is also the case that world film history in general has really not come to grips with the ways in which the screen has been shaped and adapted by Asian and Pacific cultures. There is still a tendency in the writing done in English to see our region’s screen culture in terms of influence and reaction, with Hollywood at the centre (or do I mean apex?), which is also how European screen culture tends to be treated. However, although the journal has provided a showcase for some interesting and important work on screen history in the Asia-Pacific region, climaxing, if not finishing, with issue 11, that has not been as prominent and consistent a feature as I had hoped it would be. During my active life with the journal Chris Berry had a great deal to do with whatever Asia-Pacific content appeared; he was a neverending source of ideas and contacts. When he went to Berkeley there was really no one to step into his shoes.

But Chris’s absence is not the only reason the journal has not been able make a bigger impact regionally. Here again, money is partly at issue. We needed to be all over the region’s film and media events, indicating to our potential contributors and readers the high priority we placed on their work and support. We needed people to translate work we knew we wanted from its language of origin into English. We needed to sponsor conferences on topics of regional interest and to promote special issues aimed at the region.

In part because of our international aspirations, Screening The Past adopted a conscious policy of minimising Australian film content. We did not want to be seen as an Australian journal making a little space for regional and other international content, but rather as an international journal making a little space for Australian (and American) content. This did not stop us from publishing interesting articles on aspects of Australian cinema (as, for instance, we did when the Classics section published some of Ken Coldicutt’s writing), but it did mean that submissions on Australian screen media were not routinely accepted, nor were specifically Australian topics selected for special issues – and for this reason, the journal did not become the automatic first choice for those wanting to publish in the area of Australian film (that is, most Australian film academics). Since we publish from Australia, this meant that our connection to our local academic community was never as close as it ought to have been. At the same time, I count it as a success that Australian content has never overwhelmed the journal’s international focus.

So, I thought what we were doing ought to be, broadly speaking, “alternative” screen history. Another facet of being alternative, for me at least, was to actively encourage “alternative” kinds of writing about screen history and culture. Some of this merely meant that we wanted to use the capabilities of the internet in what we published, as when clips were added in Felicity Collins’ “The experimental practice of history in the filmwork of Jeni Thornley” or Derek Paget’s “Seven theses/five modest proposals” piece made use of hypertext strategies; but I also thought we ought to encourage different styles of writing about films and the like, and to examine seriously some of the rather unusual stuff that had been written in the past and was currently marginalised, like Lindsay’s poetry.

Anyone will tell you that the idea that we ought to be receptive to “alternative” styles of writing was especially designed to get some of the weird stuff I write published, and it is true that I have taken unmerciful advantage of Screening The Past from its inception. But there are other instances too. I hope that each of you has a little list. Mine includes Rick Thompson’s deceptively simple, and wholly definitive, account of Robert Aldrich, Helen Grace’s “Hegel’s Grave”, Sam Rohdie’s lapidary writing (“Citations” is, I suppose, the most obvious example) and Adrian Martin’s ecstatic criticism (including, but not limited to, “Ticket to ride”), Kouvaros’ “Nocturnal Kinship”, Belinda Barnet’s “The Magical Place of Literary Memory™: Xanadu”, and finally, if for no other reason than I admire all that it does so much, Lorraine Mortimer’s tombeau d’artiste, “Jean Rouch’s Ciné-Ethnography: at the conjunction of research, poetry and music”.[1]

This memoire is distorted by the brevity of its time frame as well as its silence about the things I did not do that I ought to have done (for example, staying on actively after I retired, editing an issue on international screen trash that I proposed, or following up on even half of the off the wall suggestions I made). If I have perhaps over-emphasised the ways in which Screening The Past was not the journal I dreamed of, I really didn’t do all that much to make it anything different from what it is. When finally my plans for the Classics section began to hit obstacles involving translation and/or editorial permission, I was only too glad to run away from everything and pretend what eventuated had nothing to do with me. Indeed, after issue 9 nothing that I had initiated or edited, apart from my own writing, appeared in the journal; everything I had done had been done. So for seven out of the ten years in question here my memories are no more pertinent than yours. If you have read this far, maybe now would be good time to stop.


[1] A disclaimer is in order. I know, or knew, many of the writers I have cited in this paragraph and/or I have had some other connection to the pieces mentioned.

Created on: Thursday, 13 December 2007

About the Author

Bill Routt

About the Author

Bill Routt

After more than 35 years teaching film, media and cultural studies, William D. Routt retired from academia in 1998. Since then he has published work on Australian film (including The Picture That Will Live Forever with Ina Bertrand), early cinema (including “Innuendo 1.5” in LOLA) and anime (including “De Anime” in The Illusion of Life 2).View all posts by Bill Routt →