Flashback a narrative device
The critical analysis of a selection of films that have memory loss or memory erasure as a core theme with the use, by the directors of flashbacks to reconnect the character/narrative and therefore the audience to these memories created in a previous timeline. Films use flashbacks to reconnect to the past, for lost or forgotten memories it is a common technique used by directors to add more information, background and detail to a character and to the narrative, usually there is some visual clue associated with these flashback scenes, which Susan Hayward defines as “A narrative device used in film (as in literature) to go back in time to an earlier moment in a character’s life and/or history, and to narrate that moment. Flashbacks, then, are most clearly marked as subjective moments within that narrative. Flashbacks are a cinematic representation of memory and of history and, ultimately, of subjective truth.” (Hayward, 1996). The flashback sequences may become misty or blurred to indicate this is a memory flashback, some use a rewind visual, by which I mean the film appears to rewind like a tape machine/DVD player to an earlier time and memory, then when the time in the past is reached plays back in real time. There are many other ways of revealing past or forgotten memories and in some circumstances, it may just be an object that represents and triggers a past memory for example a photograph. Flashbacks in film are not a new idea as Pramaggiore, Wallis and Kilbourn state “The most common example of [re-ordered chronology in a film’s plot] is the flashback, when events taking place in the present are ‘interrupted’ by images or scenes that have taken place in the past. Typically, filmmakers give audiences a visual cue, such as a dissolve or fade, to clarify that the narrative is making a sudden shift in chronology. [ . . . ] Usually the flashback is motivated by the plot, as when a character any of the narrators in Citizen Kane, for example—recalls a memory. Flashbacks typically emphasize important causal factors in a film’s fabula [story]. [ . . . ] Editing also allows filmmakers to reveal a character’s dreams or fantasies. Like a flashback, a dream is usually signalled by a shot transition that indicates the boundary between reality and fantasy.” (Pramaggiore and Wallis, 2008) (Kilbourn, 2013)
Films and the conceptualisation of memory in flashback
- Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez. 2019)
- Bourne Identity: (Doug Liman. 2002)
- Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders. 2017)
Alita is a confusing film, the narrative is familiar and initially the audience may be thinking, is this a film for children? In what appears to be another representation of a dystopian future, a broken world recovering from war, this time an interplanetary war with Mars, The Fall, the broken remains of the cyborg battle angel, Alita is salvaged from the detritus discarded and piled high below a futuristic city called Zalem hovering above the ruins of the Iron city. A film for children it is not, or at least 12+ and followers of Anime, but it is also a film for adults, it has some of the elements of the Transformers films, themselves based on children’s toys and television programs of the same name. The character designs are familiar, a melange of many styles from films of the Science Fiction genre. The narrative shares some elements of several films not only from the science fiction genre, for example there are many similarities with the Bourne Trilogy, by this I mean an agent, in this case Alita, a cyborg with no memory of her past or previous identity, as in Bourne Identity (2002), Bourne also designed to be a weapon an asset, albeit in Alita’s case from a distant past, with a long forgotten mission. The loss of memory in itself also creates a loss of identity, Alita does not know who she is and what her purpose in life is. This becomes a key element in the development of the narrative as Alita embarks on a new mission and seeks to recover her memories and therefore a new identity. There are visual references to the film Avatar in the production design, you can see and feel David Cameron’s hand in this production, the oversize eyes of Alita sharing a similarity to the ‘Na Vi’ in Avatar. But this is a story as much as anything about memory loss and initially it appears after reconstruction that Alita’s memory loss is complete until we see in a memory flashback, memories of a military past (combat on the moon scene), the memory appeared to be triggered by violent action, when attacked and there is risk to life, Alita instinctively assumes a fighting stance and defeats her father’s attackers, that is Dr Dyson Ido.
Alita is determined to learn more of her past and forms a plan of action to enter the ultra-violent cyborg games, Motorball, which appears to be a virtual copy of Rollerball (1975) but for cyborgs. Actually, the film appears to borrow ideas and narratives from several other films, for example, the street scenes in the Iron city reminds me of the films Fifth Element (1997) and the more recent film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) both by the director Luc Besson. Perhaps David Cameron is a fan of Luc Besson’s films? The film Alita: Battle Angel (2019) had mixed reviews but is the first film to come out of Lightstorm Entertainment, the studio set up by David Cameron and the first film to capitalise on the visual technology and expertise of the special effects created for the production of Avatar (2014) and while there can be no doubting the excellence of these visual effects, the narrative is relatively weak, seemingly borrowed from several films. This is not a new issue as that was also identified in the Avatar (2009) narrative, directed by James Cameron, which performed exceptionally well at the box office but failed to impress critics due in part to the screenplay, which many considered a rewrite of the story of Pocahontas, personally I felt this was an oversimplification, as in any narrative that has at its core the idea of an advanced civilisation making contact with a less advanced civilisation would come into this category.
Ghost in the Shell (2017) This film, a live action version of the anime film also called Ghost in the Shell (1995) shares much with Alita: Battle Angel (2019) for example the main protagonist, Major Mira Killian is also a cyborg with no memory of her previous life, she only has memories from the time that she was first awakened as a cyborg, her life as a human is blank with the exception of the false memories created by the Hanka scientists who inserted a cover memory for a past she never had, the memory of losing her parents in a terrorist attack and leaving her body badly injured and only her brain surviving the attack. The brain living on in a mechanical body, which is called a shell, hence the title of the film Ghost in the Shell. Major experiences random memories as flashbacks In what appears, and are described by the Hanka scientists as glitches in her program, Major sees images of locations and objects flash into and out of existence, but rather than glitches in her program these are true memories from her past that are leaking through the chemically induced memory blocks created by the Hanka scientists, these are real memory flashbacks to her life before becoming a cyborg. The flashbacks appear randomly throughout the film, unlike other films using flashbacks there appears to be no obvious triggers, the only clue being the visuals, the glitching images, pixilation and colours to indicate these are flashback memories. Killian (Major) is captured by Kuze who connects her to his network but then releases her, at this point she sees the image of the shrine the one from her flashbacks on his chest linking Kuze to Killian. Kuze reveals he was also a product of the project 2571, a failure, one of 98 and now seeking revenge for what they did to him. Killian returns to confront Dr Oulet who is under orders from Cutter to terminate Killian, but instead Dr Oulet disobeys and instead gives Killian an address to go to and rekindle her lost memories. Dr Oulet pays for this disloyalty and is killed by Cutter. Killian steals a motorcycle and goes to the address where she finds the shrine that appears in all her flashbacks, she flashes back to the start of it all, images of Cutter and his men attacking and dragging away the children, runaways for use in their experiment’s to create the perfect cyborg. This is Killian’s beginning, not a survivor of a cyber terrorist attack but abducted by Cutter for his experiments at Hanka. Kuze joins her at the shrine and he reveals her real name as Motoko Kusanagi, that they were friends and abducted together. (Opam, 2017)
The director’s approach to the use of flashbacks differs from other films that employ them by having or seemingly not having specific triggers to initiate the flashback scenes. However, the audience is aware that they are watching a flashback as cinematographically the images are glitchy like a corrupted data file with some of the data missing creating an imperfect image that breaks up as it progresses. In addition, there is specific reference to identity not being linked to memories Killian (Mokoto) narrates in the final scene “My mind is human. My body is manufactured. I am the first of my kind, but I won’t be the last. We cling to memories as if they define us, but what we do defines us. My ghost survived to remind the next of us that humanity is our virtue. I know who I am, and what I’m here to do.” (Anon, 2017) There are other similar references to identity throughout the movie and how memories do not define us.
Comparing memory erasure and memory loss in flashback.
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004).
- Still Alice (Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. 2014).
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2014) this can be a confusing film in many ways but it the case of flashbacks the audience does not always get an obvious indication or what the trigger is or of where they are in the films timeline, whether they are watching in real time or a memory in a Flashback sequence and in many cases the only way of identifying whether this is a memory or real time is by working out where this sequence fits into the he narrative of the film. However, the scenes where Joel (played by Jim Carrey) appears seemingly to be in real time on valentine’s day in the bookshop where Joel confronts Clementine (played by Kate Winslet) is confusing is this real time or a flashback? Clementine in this scene appears to have no memory of their relationship and also appears to be involved in a new relationship with a character hidden from sight (who we later learn is Patrick played by Elijah Wood). However the Director then uses the lighting in the bookshop to represent and indicate this scene is actually a flashback by turning the lights off in sequence and as they follow Joel as he appears to leave the bookshop but actually appears to go directly into another memory this time he is talking to his friends in their home, and this is where he learns Clementine has had her memory erased of him by seeing the card from Lacuna. I concur, the sequence of Joel in the bookshop was also a flashback but there was no indication beforehand, but this explanation seems to fit into the timeline. It is at this point where Joel learns of Clementine’s decision to erase him from her memory and so Joel decides to do the same.
Joel having now decided to also get his memory erased of all memories of Clementine, he also goes to Lacuna Inc (The memory erasure clinic on the card and whose name means ‘space’ or ‘gap’) where he meets Howard the doctor (played by Tom Wilkinson) who tells Joel to collect and return with everything associated with Clementine so that they can track his memories of her, it is here where we see Joel rip pages from his journal, which appeared to be missing in the opening scene but where he has no memory of who ripped out those pages and seems to think this is the first entry in his journal in 2 months. Also in this scene we learn that their first meeting was actually at a beach party organised by their soon to be mutual friends the Eakin’s, rather than in the opening scene of the chance meeting in a diner close to the Montauk railway station that Joel seemingly decided to travel to randomly skipping work that day after an angry discovery of apparently seeing his damaged car for the first time that morning. The car was in fact damaged by Clementine, driving into a fire hydrant while drunk, which Joel, because of his memory erasure has no memory of and he just decided it was caused by the driver of the car parked next to his that morning, he left a note on the windshield to that effect.
We have two scenes each seemingly showing Joel’s and Clementine’s first meeting, firstly at the beach party and secondly over coffee at the diner. So we could assume that the memory erasure was not totally successful as they began to rekindle their relationship at the diner, so again we could infer that rather than what could have been love at first sight, they actually had some memory of their past relationship on a subconscious level. At Clementine’s instigation, during a conversation on the train, where she says she knows him from somewhere, from this they started the relationship again. In the scene while waiting for Clementine to retrieve her toothbrush Joel appears to have an identity crisis probably caused by the memory erasures, which is interrupted by a knock on his car window by Patrick, who Joel has no memory of, and so the conversation appears to make no sense to Joel and to the audience but of course we learn later that Patrick through his work at the memory erasure clinic has obtained Joel’s information on Clementine, which he uses to assume some elements of Joel’s identity in his pursuit of Clementine affections and so Patrick was concerned to see Joel parked outside her home.
As we are returned to the clinic in flashback where Joel is undertaking the erasure procedure, each memory tracked and erased as each object is presented, which then flashes red on screen as they are erased along with the memory associated with them, we experience a fast sequence of events in a serious of scenes of the locations and memory associations, one of which includes the memory of Clementine returning home drunk one evening having crashed the car, which initiates the breakup. This in turn becomes a memory loop to which Joel has no escape until his memory is erased, as Joel chases Clementine in the damaged car, then follows on foot, he sees his car stopped at both ends of the same street and whatever direction he walks he is confronted by the damaged car. This is a confusing film in many respects the timeline follows no order and so having returned to the scene during the erasure procedure, Joel hears Stan (played by Mark Ruffolo) and Patrick talking about Patricks new girlfriend, which we know or suspect is Clementine and so the face Joel could not see in the book shop flashback is Patrick’s. As Joel’s memory is eventually erased, having tried to force himself with Clementine’s assistance to wake up using Joel’s memories including a scene where Joel’s uses his childhood memories to try and save his memory of her, Clementine says they should meet back at Montauk where they first met and this is how they both knew to meet there subconsciously in the future, both after having their memories erased. Well I’m not sure how they both subconsciously knew to meet there, as we are only witnesses to Joel’s memory erasure, so how did Clementine know, or have reason to go to Montauk that day? Mary the clinics secretary, who we learn later has also had her memory erased because of a previous relationship with Howard, quotes Friedrich Nietzsch “Blessed are the forgetful for they got the better even of their blunder” and again this time Alexander Pope “How happy is the blameless vessels lot! The world forgot. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The first quote appears to indicate that the erasure of their memories solves all their problems but of course it does not do that at all, in fact they both appear to have major identity issues, having lost part of themselves by having the memories of each other erased. Each looking for what they have lost, Clementine almost at the edge of madness as she searches her home for what? In the article by Gemma King “I don’t know. I’m lost. I’m scared. I feel like I’m disappearing . . . nothing makes sense to me.” It is clear that Clementine feels the rupture in the continuity of her experience caused by the erasure, verbalising this as an inexplicable feeling of emptiness and disorientation.” (King, 2013), perhaps she is searching for something to centre her identity, clues about her identity, lost following the erasure. The second quote referring to a happiness that neither feels as they seek their lost identities and attempt to rebuild them by regaining the erased memories, while also giving context and title to the film. It is at the flat that Clementine receives a letter from Mary with details and audio tape of her memory erasure which Clementine plays in Joel’s car stereo, which reveals all to Joel and causes another breakup. However, Clementine follows Joel to his home where he is listening to his audio recording of his memory erasure, which also reveals his reasons for having his memory wiped. Clementine appears to regret her decision for erasing Joel from her memory as does Joel and the film ends but is the final sequence of them together in the snow a future memory or is this another flashback and they are still listening to Joel’s audio tape in his home?
Still Alice (2014). Alice (played by Julianne Moore) a Professor at Columbia University is having minor memory problems starting with a mind blank during a lecture, she is lost for a word. As the film progresses the memory lapses become more prevalent at one point during a run, she becomes disorientated and doesn’t appear to know where she is or which direction to go. This is a very different approach in direction to that of the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) the conceptualisation of memory loss is more random in Still Alice and includes memory loss of words, places and people rather than the selective amnesia of Joel’s memories of Clementine. Alice having been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and at a relatively young age, the doctor says the disease will progress rapidly, which we see in the film’s timeline, as the memory losses appear to become more frequent. Alice worries that as the memory loss increases, she will lose more and more of her identity, which sets in motion the plan to end her life before all of her identity is gone, as in the title Still Alice, will this remain true after all the memories have been ripped away? The film draws the audience’s attention to what memories are lost, concentrating on the loss of short-term memory as Alice forgets almost immediately conversations with family members when compared with the sequences of long-term memory by using flashbacks to memories of when she was a child, with her mother, father and sister enjoying the beach. These flashbacks are triggered by a photo album with photos of herself with her mother and sister but also when she is struggling to remember how to tie her shoelaces we return via flashback to her memories of family on the beach.
Generally this is bleak film chronicling Alice’s loss of memory along with her identity as a highly educated mother and wife is gradually ripped away, leaving her to struggle with less and less of her memories, but there are lighter moments, when she jokes about not remembering what she and her daughter were arguing about the next day.
Alice uses her mobile phone as a prosthetic memory, scheduling appointments and family get togethers, while also setting herself questions that she must answer every day, a test of memory that should she fail directs her to a video with directions on how she has planned her suicide. Later in the film Alice finds this video by mistake and literally follows the video directions, not seemingly understanding what she is doing and only a moment of clumsiness prevents her from going through with the suicide instructions, as she drops the sleeping pills on the floor and immediately forgets what she was doing or why she was there. As the disease progresses the memory loss is extensive even to the point where she has difficulty speaking to her daughter about the screenplay, she had just read to her, but Alice says just one word ‘Love’. The memory loss in Still Alice is progressive and the use of flashbacks is limited to just those few already mentioned and restricted to revisiting long term memories of Alice’s childhood, the short term memories are gone and the use of flashback would not have had the same impact as they had in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as Joel was reclaiming memories erased while Alice’s short-term memories are gone forever.
Video messages from the past, another form of flashback in time, rolling the clock back to a forgotten memory. In Still Alice the suicide video created in the past while Alice still has her memories and identity, a message to a future Alice who she expects to no longer have a memory of recording the video and the reasons behind it. A form of prosthetic memory for Alice who has lost so much of her memories and identity in such a short time. Total Recall used a similar technique for Hauser who is also Quaid to inform a future Quaid who has no memory of his alternative past of what his mission is.
Flashbacks and triggers
In Alita, the flashback sequence is preceded by an act of violence where her life is in imminent danger, in this life or death struggle the flashback is triggered. In cinematic terms this is achieved by the camera zooming into one of Alita’s eyes and then the image fades to white, the fade then dissolving to the start of the memory sequence. Alita’s like Bourne’s flashbacks are triggered by violence but in the Bourne films not all flashbacks are triggered by violence, objects and visual clues also initialised flashbacks. As Bourne holds a gun to a woman’s head, he suddenly flashbacks to another mission, a woman in another time and place speaking Russian as he points his gun at her. In the films throughout the trilogy he flashbacks in his dreams and he adds these memories to a notebook, which has effectively become a prosthetic memory, listing the locations and times, details of missions that he no longer has memory of. Some films do not employ triggers for instance Ghost in the Shell (2017), the flashbacks appear randomly which is also true of some of the flashbacks employed in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) creating this confusion of are we watching a live scene or a memory in flashback.
This leads to a wider consideration of what triggers film directors use to indicate and initiate flashbacks, it appears that almost anything could be a trigger, which allows a director the complete freedom to add more detail to a character or the storyline at any time. As Maureen Turim states in her work on the use of flashbacks in film, “The flashback is particularly interesting to theoretical conceptualization of film. The flashback is a privileged moment in unfolding that juxtaposes different moments of temporal reference. A juncture is wrought between present and past and two concepts are implied in this juncture: memory and history. Studying the flashback is not only a way of studying the development of filmic form, it is a way of seeing how filmic forms engage concepts and represent ideas.” (Turim, 2013)
Anon (2017) Ghost in the Shell (2017) – Quotes – IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1219827/quotes?ref_=tttrv_sa_3 (Accessed: 21 January 2020).
Hayward, S. (1996) Key concepts in cinema studies. London ; New York: Routledge.
Kilbourn, R. J. A. (2013) Cinema, memory, modernity: The representation of memory from the art film to transnational cinema, Cinema, Memory, Modernity: The Representation of Memory from the Art Film to Transnational Cinema. doi: 10.4324/9781315888606.
King, G. (2013) What Else Is Lost with Memory Loss? Memory and Identity in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Bright Lights Film Journal. Available at: https://brightlightsfilm.com/what-else-is-lost-with-memory-loss-memory-and-identity-in-eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-mind/#.XiA2t-LANp9 (Accessed: 16 January 2020).
Opam, K. (2017) Ghost in the Shell review: a solid film built on a broken foundation – The Verge. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2017/3/29/15114902/ghost-in-the-shell-review-scarlett-johansson (Accessed: 21 January 2020).
Pramaggiore, M. and Wallis, T. (2008) Film : a critical introduction. 2nd ed. Edited by T. Wallis. London: Laurence King.
Turim, M. (2013) Flashbacks in film: Memory & history, Flashbacks in Film: Memory & History. Taylor and Francis. doi: 10.4324/9781315851761.