Flashbacks reveal character information
Anna (2019) a film where the linear timeline is proliferated with flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks, each of which is essential to the scene, for the spectators understanding of the main protagonist’s actions and the film’s progression. The flashbacks are extended so much so that the flashbacks within the flashbacks are also extensive as Bordwell states “[e]xtended flashback sequences usually include material that the remembering character could not have witnessed or known. Character memory is simply a convenient immediate motivation for a shift in chronology; once the shift is accomplished, there are no constant cues to remind us that we are supposedly in someone’s mind. (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 2002: 43).
This statement appears to be particularly relevant to the flashback sequence in Casablanca (1942) which I mention elsewhere in this chapter. In the case of Anna (2019) each of the flashbacks revisiting memories from Anna’s past and expanding upon her character’s origins with details essential to understanding through these flashbacks how and what is happening in the chronological timeline. The flashback sequences are clearly identified, each preceded by an intertitle with date information indicating how many years in the past for each event that is revealed in flashback. Without these flashback sequences the spectator would be left uncomprehending as without the character information revealed in the flashbacks, the linear timeline and the narrative would be proliferated with holes/gaps in the narrative. Referring back to my opening statement on the director Soderbergh and as Bordwell states “The story is the chain of events in chronological order. But as we’ve seen, that story may be presented in various ways. If we use flashbacks instead of linear time, or if we decide to organize events around one character rather than another, or if we make other choices about presentation, we will be creating a different plot. (Bordwell, Thompson and Smith, 2016: 75). For an example of what Bordwell is referring to regarding flashbacks changing the plot in the above quotation, see my paragraph on the film The Limey (1999). How manipulating the narrative through the editing process, the timeline and the sequences of the flashbacks creates a totally different narrative from the original screenplay when compared with what a completely linear timeline would have looked like.
In Anna (2019) the flashbacks use classical conventions for entering and exiting for example, flashes to white, fades a cross dissolve combined with the sounds of a camera’s shutter operation. A lengthy flashback with flashbacks within it, provides some of the origins of Anna’s character to inform the spectator through these flashback sequences details of her background and her training as a spy. The flashbacks inform the spectator who now has some understanding as to how in one scene a market stall seller in Russia makes the jump into a modelling job in the Paris fashion industry. Then in a later scene from fashion model to an International assassin. This fits in perfectly with a quotation by Bordwell who states “Most obviously, a flashback can explain why one character acts as she or he does.” (Bordwell, 2009). The use of intertitles at the beginning and the end of the sequence clearly indicates the start and ending of the flashback and where in the past that the events occur, although the much earlier childhood flashbacks are not so indicated, instead these use the classical conventions of fades, sound and flashes to white to enter and exit the flashback sequences. As Bordwell states “If your flashbacks skip around a lot, you might worry about viewers’ losing their bearings. So to help out, you might add superimposed titles identifying the time and place of the scene.” (Bordwell, Thompson and Smith, 2016: 75). The concept of using intertitles to indicate changes in the linear timeline, harks back to early silent cinema and classical Hollywood cinema, but as I have already discussed this has also been used in contemporary films for example Anna (2019) and Iron Man (2008).
In another case study the film The Notebook (2004), the flashbacks are used to link to past events, the memories of a past forgotten in its entirety by the central character, Allie. Duke, Allie’s husband uses the notebook, from which the film’s title is derived, as a means of misdirection, to be not seen as drawing upon his own memories in the retelling of what is their story that is revealed in the flashbacks. Duke appears to read from his notebook in the hope that Allie will regain her memory of their past life together. In many respects this misdirection works, as Allie believes the story is of a couple unknown to her, an interesting story of young love. That is true until she has a lucid moment and she remembers that Duke is her husband and the story he has been telling her from the notebook, is their own. One of the possible reasons for this filmmaking approach and the use of the flashbacks is to also keep the spectator in suspense of the identity of the young couple in the flashbacks to create a mystery. That is until a point in the film where it becomes clear that they and the young couple from the flashbacks are one and the same. A useful analogy could be derived from Theatre as Hugo Münsterberg the psychologist argues “[u]nderstanding a theatrical performance, for example, relies on our remembering the sequence of scenes that preceded the one that is before us. A character can draw attention to an earlier scene, stage props, lighting and music can also suggest these to us, but the scene itself cannot be directly “replayed” before our eyes. With film, however, things are different. The act of remembering can be screened, so to speak, before our very eyes thanks to the use of flashbacks. (Colman, 2012: 34).
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