Mary Ann Doane’s Cinematic Time

There are a lot of inspiring readings out there, but some are more dense and require good timing. In this sense, chapter 3 of Mary Ann Doane’s The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (2003) is heavy in theory but reads like the Guns, Germs & Steel of new writing in visual culture when I think about my own sensory-visual experience in Bangkok. Chapter 3 is about her concept of the afterimage, about how a human failure in vision impedes our access the any present time—whether by memory, some prolonged duration of the past (“the persistence of vision”), and the literal sense in which any of our ‘clear’ images before us is a delayed response (since an actual open shutter would appear as a blur–as in the image that glosses Doane’s cover). Doane contrasts the afterimage with the emergence of the ‘index’, signs that attempt to imprint and prevent the loss of these visual ‘traces’ such that even if the objects no longer exist the external referents of the objects (signs) remain. And so chapter 3 carefully unfolds in terms of cinema as a solution to the afterimage, that vision is actually time (delay), that an index prevents the loss of an event, death introduces chance and contingency to any rational approaches of the index, and the cinema positioned the present as “historical moments of a new order” by introducing the ‘cut’ through montage. The cuts of montage, Doane concludes, translate the present into history by bringing into juxtaposition “two separate presents.” She derives the conception from Pasolini.

[T]he cut that coordinates two separate presences and reconfigures them as a historic, that is, meaningful, present. He goes even further, to claim that the cut is equivalent to death, which on the individual biographic level, converts “our present, which is infinite, unstable, and uncertain, and thus linguistically undescribable, into a clear, stable, certain, and thus linguistically describable past.” …In the long take, the cinema incarnates the meaninglessness of a lived reality. The cut, like the dead eye of Helmholtz’s fresh corpse, stabilizes the image.

I expressed my interest in the cinematic ‘cut’ in an entry on Black May somewhere below. In another chapter of my dissertation I write about the role of maps in the nation-state, which Thongchai Winichakul calls the geobody. In this sense, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Objects at Noon (2000) makes incisions into national body (the geobody that is Thailand) through a series of visual and narrative cuts in the film’s story using the surrealist technique of Exquisite Corpse. But while Apichatpong’s film is about cartographic space, Pinyo Trisuriyathamma’s short story “Bangkok/Paris, Jiang and Cindy: On an Old Road that Brought Us Together” is about the cuts of the afterimage: like denotative (finger pointing) functions of the index which Doane says force attention to something somewhere “here and now.”

Cindy and Jiang, the two characters of Pinyo’s story, attend a black and white photographic exhibition in Bangkok’s old city, encounter a yellow shirt PAD protest on the way there, and muse on a variety of events including a recent earthquake in China that almost took Jiang’s life and Cindy’s role in Thaksin Shinawatra’s liquidation of Shin Corp assets to Singaporean company Temasek. These ‘signs’, traces of an index referring to other things, are cut by the erotic episodes of Cindy & Jiang and their journeys across both global space (in narrative memory) and urban Bangkok space. What is interesting about the juxtapositions is that many of the present events are afterimages of a past history. Access to the present, to a pure instant of the moment, is denied by a reference to a past history whether made explicit or not by the author. Most importantly, the landscape (rendered cinematic in its two temporalities conjoined) departs from the present by illustrating its ‘layered’ history visually as well as temporally: urban development is modeled after a particular representation of power (Haussman), the continual arguments over this representation (Dovey) along Ratchadamneon and the Democracy Monument, and the new ‘center’ of Siam where Cindy and Jiang reside in a 5 star hotel. Conceptually, Doane’s point is that every present is embodied by the past (the temporal nature of the event), and that the images of the present unfold as a temporal lag (the temporal nature of visual apprehension) in stabilizing the image.

Rama V statue overlooking Rachadumneun Avenue

Old Thai parlaiment at the end of Rachadamneun Nok Avenue

The most important development of Cindy & Jiang is where they end up, climactically, at some photography exhibition reverting into a Parisian past. Cindy and Jiang are in Bangkok’s Old City district which, in the 1890s was modeled after Paris—designed by the Haussmann. These reforms were implemented under Rama V, who in that same trip back from Paris brought back the technologies of cinema to Thailand which, according to Doane “exposed people to aspects and events of the world that had previously been distant and inaccessible.” The cinematic nature of this story it requires the reader to cut across time and space, following the visual and temporal jumps of the two characters in an urban and global cartography.

Doane lecturing on 'Information, Crisis, Catastrophe' in 1988

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