In classical Hollywood Cinema, Casablanca has a single extended use of the flashback, the purpose is to provide background character information, in revealing to the spectator the previous relationship of the main protagonists, Rick and Ilsa. When considering the decision to use only a single extended flashback sequence in Casablanca (1942) when compared with the multiple use of flashbacks in Kitty Foyle (1940), which are just a few years apart. I am reminded of the Bordwell quote that flashbacks do not tend to confuse the spectator as we mentally put them in order, but this may not be true of the spectator in 1940s cinema. The spectators of the time may possibly have found flashbacks a new and confusing concept and this may have influenced the decision-making processes for the creators of Casablanca (1942) to limit the use to just one flashback a self-contained film within a film. As Turim quotes from the Film Encyclopaedia (New York: Perigee, 1982), “Although generally a useful device in advancing a complicated plot, the multiple flashback can be absurdly confusing.” (Turim, 2014: 247). The extended flashback sequence is set in Paris, the flashback is used to both reveal and develop the main protagonists previous relationship and simultaneously resolve some of the gaps in the film’s narrative, the unanswered questions in the opening scenes of the film for example, where does Ilsa know Rick from and what was their previous relationship, just friends or more?. Dana Polan the film theorist states that to many cinephiles Casablanca (1942) is an example of Hollywood filmmaking at its best and as Polan, a professor of cinema studies states in his Casablanca essay, “One of the great films of cult veneration, Casablanca (1942) is the perfect example of Hollywood perfection.” (Geiger and Rutsky, 2005: 363). Flashbacks in classic Hollywood cinema typically make use of a series of conventions to initiate the flashback, for example Casablanca’s flashback sequence includes several of these. Bordwell states that “[f]lashbacks can be initiated by any number and indeed types of cues. For instance, there are several cues for a flashback in a classical Hollywood film: pensive character attitude, close-up of face, slow dissolve, voice-over narration, sonic ‘flashback,’ music. In any given case, several of these will be used together” (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 2002: 5) . The flashback sequence in Casablanca uses several of what have become the classical, that is established and recognisable conventions for a flashback. For example the flashback sequence is preceded by Rick’s pensive attitude, Rick is centred in the frame with his face in close-up showing his anguish. The shot then begins to become misty/blurring with a slow dissolve into what becomes the flashback sequence. At the end of the flashback sequence similar conventions are used but using the steam emissions from the locomotive to blur the image and initiate another slow dissolve back to the current chronological order that is linear timeline. However, Casablanca is preceded by both literary and film examples of the flashback technique. The Encyclopaedia Britannica states that “The flashback technique is as old as Western literature. In the Odyssey, most of the adventures that befell Odysseus on his journey home from Troy are told in flashback by Odysseus when he is at the court of the Phaeacians”. (Rodriguez, 2016). The early use of the flashback in literature, the narrator telling the story, Musgrove, professor of humanities states …” at the beginning of his “Iliad,” Ovid uses conventions of traditional epic, especially the extended flashback, to call into question the reliability of epic narration and epic narrators and to suggest alternative perspectives on the canonical story of the Trojan War. “ (Musgrove, 2013: 2). As I stated previously flashbacks have increased in prevalence in films from the 1930s’ to varying degrees of commonplace in films over the decades. Turim states that “After 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). From this example you could infer that the use of flashback conventions is well established and used to prepare the spectator for the start of the flashback and similarly out of the flashback sequence, returning to the chronological order and linear timeline.
As an example, The Lives of Others (2006) a non-English language drama, uses some of the traditional flashback conventions while other films may abandon the use of flashback conventions leaving the spectator to decide whether they are watching the chronological timeline or events in the past in flashback. For example, The Lives of Others (2006) opens with a flashback sequence ending with a shot and sound of the stopping of a tape recorder. The films flashback sequences are triggered by shots and sounds of the starting and stopping of this tape recorder. As the recorder starts to play, the scene jumps back to a past event, and a flashback sequence returning back to the interrogation of the subject first revealed in the opening scene. This flashback although part of the main protagonist’s memory could be classified as a memory flashback, however it is being recounted by the playing of a recording and therefore could be defined as a telling flashback. The recorder is stopped, and the spectator is returned to the chronological timeline and a change of scene to a classroom full of students.
As the switch into and out of flashback sequences between the interrogation and classroom scenes progress, the conventions are sufficiently established so that the shot of the tape recorder could be abandoned. Replaced by just the sound of the recorder’s operation. This is now enough to establish to the spectator whether they are watching a flashback sequence or not. As Bordwell states “You can begin the film at a climactic moment; once the viewers are hooked, they will wait for you to move back to set things up. You can create mystery about an event that the plot has skipped over, then answer the question through a flashback.” (Bordwell, 2009). This statement by Bordwell is also clearly represented in the opening sequence of the film Oldboy (2003) an example most importantly of a film proliferated with flashback sequences and the use several examples of the flashback conventions and elements of cinematography, involving stylised shots and flashbacks triggered by sounds. As previously mentioned, one of the key reasons for choosing Oldboy (2003) a non-Hollywood film, is for an example of the use of a variety of flashbacks and for its use of cinematography. The flashback sequences use a variety zooms, tracking shots and matching shots to enter and exit flashbacks. The opening sequence is set in the future in the form of a flashforward, a significant moment in the film as the main protagonist has just been released from 15 years of incarceration. However, the spectator is not aware that they are viewing events set in the future, this is only revealed later in the film. Bordwell argues the use of the flashforward and states that “[t]he flashforward is unthinkable in the classical narrative cinema, which seeks to retard the ending and efface the mode of narration. But in the art cinema, the flashforward functions perfectly to stress authorial presence: we must notice how the narrator teases us with knowledge that no character can have (Bordwell, 1979: 2). The meaning behind this incarceration and minutia of the imprisonment are central to the films narrative and is revealed in parts through the film’s progression in a series of memory and narrated flashbacks. One of the flashback functions is to inform the spectator of past events, but these flashbacks may not uniquely come from the memory of the protagonist, as Bordwell states “[h]aving a character remember or recount the past might seem to make the flashback more “realistic,” but flashbacks usually violate plausibility. Even “subjective” flashbacks usually present objective (and reliable) information. More oddly, both memory-flashbacks and telling-flashbacks usually show things that the character didn’t, and couldn’t witness. (Bordwell, 2009). By subjective flashback, Bordwell almost certainly means the flashback is derived from the characters personal memory of events which is revealed in the flashback as opposed to the external telling flashback which is usually a narrated or telling flashback and therefore not taken directly from a character’s memory. For example, Oldboy (2003) the main protagonist appears in some flashbacks as his adult self, participating in the flashback and pursuing his younger self through the memory of these historical events represented in the flashback.
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