The Past Inside the Present is twelve minutes of intense Phillip K. Dick-esque imagery. The first time I watched the film, I wasn’t prepared for the unabashed surreality of it. Upon subsequent viewings, however, PITP evokes feelings of loneliness, withdrawal, and depression along with a kind of disconnectedness. Like many surreal films, PITP is not meant to be taken literally, and if you take it at face value it is simply confusing. It is an absurd film that has strong metaphorical context, and once you tap into the film’s absurdity, you find it’s strengths. It is really a film about identity, and how we lose ourselves.
The film follows a couple, with no affectation, who meet in the woman’s apartment. They sit, watch the news, and enjoy some wine together. Then the two of them engage in some practiced, seemingly unenthusiastic sex under the surveillance of a video camera. A shelf of dated betamax tapes suggests that this rendezvous is a daily occurrence. Then the man dresses and leaves. Following his exit from the apartment, the woman sits back on the couch and watches a videotape of herself watching television.
This is a short, seemingly unremarkable series of events, but it is the surreal imagery that surrounds our characters that really draws the viewer in and exposes the closed off emotions of the characters who seem to struggle with expressing themselves. Perhaps that alone is a commentary on our restrained society.
“Moving somewhere where I knew no one created a strong desire for a tangible link to my past. We all undergo these ordinary sorts of transformations several times throughout our life, and though we hope to persist in spite of change, I think most people experience anxiety that fundamental parts of themselves are slipping away. In retrospect it was in this environment that the plot of the film started to take shape: two characters who attempted to record and replay their experiences with diminishing returns. Other surreal images began to emerge – the fluid dripping upward and the pieces of the characters dissolving – which started to take on personal significance for me as I felt my old identity giving way to a new one.” – The Making of The Past Inside the Present by James Siewert
Viewing the film in the context of this quote we see that the characters are shells of their former selves and that through attempting to recapture their old selves, they are losing who they are. They fail to accept themselves as they are now, and thus squander whatever life may be possible for this new version of themselves. This is an condemnation of living in the past and the repercussions of doing this too long. As Siewert points out though, we all do this from time to time. We like to think of ourselves as static beings, but in reality we are a spectrum of selves that exists across a spectrum of time. When we fail to realize this, we get caught looking into the abyss of our past unable to obtain what once gave our lives meaning, just as the characters do in the bedroom scene as they are drawn apart from each other. Fascinating stuff to reflect on.
This kind of melancholy is captured well in the film’s soundtrack:
I met Geoff Saba through a music video I had directed in the spring of 2015, as a kind of distraction from the film – He had been the producer on the track. His own music was a mixture of vocal drones and electronic sounds that were hypnotic and surreal. It was the first thing I had listened to that captured the feeling I was after: the sensation of sinking – something trance-inducing that would pull an audience beneath the surface of their conscious experience. – The Making of The Past Inside the Present by James Siewert
I think this sense of sinking that Siewert describes is accurate to how I felt watching the film unfold for the first time. Metaphorically speaking, this sinking is also representative of the loss of identity explored in the film. When we don’t know who we are, who we want to be, or where we are going in life we get caught in this kind of existential quicksand, that draws us under. Siewert certainly captures this sensation in the film.
The Past Inside the Present is a twelve minute film that took more than two years of nearly continuous work to complete, so you could describe it as a passion project for Siewert. Indie Street, a film co-op model/group distribution platform, has made the film available to the public through free download via torrent. You can just download the film, or you can download the film and a bunch of extras that discuss and show how the film was made. My first interaction with Indie Street was the hilarious short film Blinky, which is a dark, funny, and awesome cyberpunk short film. The Past Inside the Present is absurd. It is surreal. Phillip K. Dick would be proud. I, for one, highly recommend it.