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The Flashback Story, part 2

--- These Flashbacks are everywhere! You're next!

Caught! In mid-Flashback, Kevin McCarthy in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.

The most popularly used Flashback structure is the 'Wraparound Bookend'. A character in the present starts to tell a story. The bulk of the movie is a Flashback, whether of events from years before, or just earlier the same day. Near the end, the story returns to the present in the bookend part of the structure, and the tale comes full circle. The bookends are the short scenes in the present, sometimes called the 'framing device'. The real story we've come to see is from the past. Part of the tension with this structure is that we have privileged information the characters in the flashback do not. If the bookends are at a funeral, as in The Barefoot Contessa, for instance, we know that Humphrey Bogart will not suddenly be killed. In Peggy Sue Got Married, which I suppose is technically more complicated because it is a quasi time-travel tale, we know from the outset that Peggy indeed got married ... but will she a second time?

The Bookend structure has been around since Griffith's time. Its most famous use is in Robert Weine's Cabinet of Caligari, where the entire tale's distorted appearance seems to be a political crazy-mirror image of a world gone mad. But at the conclusion, a wraparound reveals the weirdness to be just the ravings of a lunatic, and the Evil Professor Caligari to be really a kindly asylum warden. It has been argued that the Flashback structure thus restores 'order' and negates the anarchistic intentions of the filmmakers, who wished Caligari to be a comment on postwar Germany.

Producer Walter Wanger imposed an intrusive Wraparound Bookend structure on Don Seigel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1956 original version. As everyone knows, Siegel's intended ending was a straight narrative with Kevin McCarthy screaming 'You're next!' to a freeway full of complacent Americans. The framing device, where McCarthy convinces a doctor of his tale of a Pod invasion, seems to have been added to make the film both more hopeful, and less radical. But Invasion achieved such a strong mood of paranoia, it was hard to believe the Pods would be defeated just because the FBI was involved. (Savant once edited a non-Flashback, un-narrated version of Invasion, with mixed results. The ending and beginning are certainly stronger, but one misses McCarthy's truly frightening expository narration.)

In standard Hollywood films, Flashbacks eventually became commonplace, bogging down soap operas like The High and the Mighty with their cliche 'wavy lines' designating where reality ended and Flashback memories began. These are the ones lampooned in Wayne's World. Technically, they are called oil dissolves. Sometimes whirlpools or hypnotist's vortex-wheels were superimposed instead. Eventually, films adopted the notion that audiences no longer required a set of traffic-sign conventions to tell what was happening in a movie. Formalized oil-dissolve Flashbacks stopped being mandatory, along with fades, dissolves, and transitional montages. Time structures started to splinter as well. A big influence on the French New Wave was Kubrick's 1956 The Killing, which detailed a single crime caper from several simultaneous viewpoints, not intercut, but shown one after the other. This thrilled critics and baffled audiences everywhere.

In Europe, art cinema made normal narrative a secondary concern and puzzle films like Last Year at Marienbad, J'taime J'taime and Blow up communicated intense states of alienation and confusion with their bizarre time structures. The influence was felt back in the states. The Manchurian Candidate cleverly featured alternate brainwashed and non-brainwashed realities. Critics loved it, but, once again, audiences didn't go for it in a big way. Editor Ralph Rosenblum used New-Wavish subliminal Flash-cuts, only a few frames in duration, in The Pawnbroker and the result was the topic of many an argument whether they 'worked' for any but the art house audience. But just four years later Midnight Cowboy's similar shock cuts referred to a violent past event that audiences had no trouble understanding.

The delirious 70's films of Luis Bunuel have to contain the most audacious use of Flashbacks. In The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Bunuel constructs a wicked maze of scenes where the characters and the audience are constantly being fooled as to which 'reality' is in effect at any given time, with the Flashback being used as a sly but creative form of deception.

As a way to develop his Westerns, Sergio Leone began his own lyrical use of Flashbacks starting with his second Clint Eastwood film. In For a Few Dollars More the Flashbacks develop character, in Once Upon a Time In the West they give a vengeance theme an epic grandeur, and in Duck, You Sucker the Flashbacks lend grace and humanity to an action tale that would otherwise be much less compelling. All of these flashbacks were visual feasts without dialogue - to survive as a commercial product, Leone's expensive 'art' needed to cross language barriers.

Leone's Flashbacks skipped the Wavy Lines still commonly used in America. Opticals in Europe at that time were expensive and of poor quality, so the choice may really have been by economic necessity. But in a couple of years they were largely absent from American films too. Oddly, Warners insisted on them for Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, making its Flashbacks look rather old-fashioned in a film otherwise full of brilliant editorial innovation.

And now, in the 1990's? The mainstream now is almost completely Flashback-free. Most non-fantasy movies being made are simple, character-driven 'straight' narratives. The prevailing exception is the Wraparound Bookend structure, as seen in films like Titanic. Its 1912 is a mostly uninterrupted Flashback with brief framing 'bookends' in the present. Those contemporary American films that play fast and loose with Flashback structures are usually Time Travel movies, or considered eccentric - the fascinating Pulp Fiction, for example.

Text © Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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