Flashbacks Draft Chapter 1

Paragraph 1 Flashbacks

Definition, the history and conventions of the flashback in Cinema

This chapter offers definitions of what a flashback in film is, the function of the flashback and considers the historical timeline of the use of the flashback in cinema, from its earliest origins in classical literature. Geoff Boucher the editor of the online magazine, Hollywood Deadline in an interview with the director of The Limey Wilson in car sceneThe Limey (1999), The film’s Director, Soderbergh is reported to have stated “[w]e created or tried to create, meaning and emotion through repetition and juxtaposition, which again, is something that’s unique to movies. The ability to mould something and then change the meaning or alter the meaning just by reordering and repeating things, that’s unique in film.” (Boucher, 2019). The Flashback, a definition of the flashback by Maureen Turim the film theorist defines flashback as “[t]he 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.” A privileged moment that Turim refers to is where the filmmaker shares with the spectator a revelation and typically important character information in the flashback, as in photography the photograph is a shared experience between the viewer and the photographer, a privileged moment. Turim then goes on to state “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: 1-20). While Bordwell, a film theorist defines the flashback simply as “Flashback …”any shot or scene that breaks into present-time action to show us something that happened in the past” (Bordwell, 2009) and then goes on to define the historical use of the flashback “Although the term flashback can be found as early as 1916, for some years it had multiple meanings. Some 1920s writers used it to refer to any interruption of one strand of action by another. At a horse race, after a shot of the horses, the film might “flash back” to the crowd watching. (See “Jargon of the Studio,” New York Times for 21 October 1923, X5.) In this sense, the term took on the same meaning as then-current terms like “cut-back” and “switch-back.” There was also the connotation of speed, as “flash” was commonly used to denote any short shot.” (Bordwell, 2009). To put the use of the flashback into greater historical context, Bordwell states that “Flashbacks are rarer in the classical Hollywood film than we normally think. Throughout the period 1917 – 60, screenwriters’ manuals usually recommended not using them; as one manual put it, ‘Protracted or frequent flashbacks tend to slow the dramatic progression”. (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 2002: 42). Flashbacks were used sparingly in classical cinema when compared with its current use in contemporary cinema and the ready acceptance by the spectator and filmmaker of the flashback as a tool in the filmmakers toolkit, as I previously quoted, until the 1960s screenwriters were dissuaded from using flashbacks. Barry Salt, film historian, argues that there are two types of flashback “[t]here are two principal classes of flashbacks: those that show scenes in the past that someone is remembering in their own mind, and those that show past scenes that are being narrated by someone to an audience within the framing scene.”(Salt, 1992: 109) he also states that “[t]he earliest known example of a narrated flashback occurs in the Italian Cines film company’s (Società Italiana Cines) film La fiabe della nonne, made in the middle of 1908”. (Salt, 1992: 109). Later examples of films that use flashbacks date from 1910, states Bordwell, quoting from Turim’s research into flashbacks, Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History (Routledge, 1989). Bordwell goes on to state that Turim’s research indicates that “[f]lashbacks have been a mainstay of filmic storytelling since the 1910s”. (Bordwell, 2009). Early examples of classical Hollywood films utilising flashbacks include; Behind the Door (1919), An Old Sweetheart of Mine (1923), His Master’s Voice (1925)’ Silence (1926), Forever After (1926), The Woman on Trial (1927), The Last Command (1928), Last Moment (1928), Mammy (1930), Such is Life (1931), The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), Two Seconds (1932). While not an exhaustive list the prevalence of the flashbacks in the early films of the 20th century was relatively uncommon, however flashbacks in films become more common from 1930. The use of flashbacks became more widespread and popular as Turim argues “[a]fter cinema makes the flashback a common and distinctive narrative trait, audiences and critics were more likely to recognize flashbacks as crucial elements of narrative structure in other narrative forms. (Turim, 2014: 20). While Bordwell appears to agree and states “that there is a veritable cascade of titles using the flashback in the 1930s, with conventions already widely in circulation”. (Bordwell, 2009). As the use of the flashback gained greater acceptance, the flashbacks become more common and begin to make appearances across all genres in classical Hollywood films, including such iconic films as Casablanca (1942). Casablanca BTSAs Bordwell states “[d]uring the 1940s, however, flashback plotting was more than a fashion. Its proliferation in all genres encouraged filmmakers to probe a range of creative possibilities. A flashback, it became evident, could yield a complex experience for the viewer”. (Bordwell, 2017: 72).


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Flashbacks in Film: The Lives of Others (2006)