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A Short History Of Flashbacks In Film

The third instalment of the DC Extended Universe franchise came in the form of 2016’s Suicide Squad, which introduced the unhinged Harley Quinn alongside Jared Leto’s Joker.

Generally accepted as being a subpar film as far as superhero movies go, the DCEU is yet to get it quite right. Since viewing, I’ve been trying to work out the contributing factors to my own lack of enjoyment in the film; was it the cinematography, or perhaps the shoddy acting? Alas no. Upon consideration, I’ve come to realise that the saturation of misused flashbacks are the main qualm I have with Suicide Squad. They were mechanisms for exposition, used solely to explain the story rather than earning said backstory through dialogue, character development or subtext. In its long history as a cinematic technique, there have been both impressive and similarly questionable attempts.

Flashbacks are, in essence, a double edged sword and while they can work beautifully if used well, they can also be used as a device for directors who haven’t developed a fully realised way to express what they need to in a scene. In order to work well, flashbacks should be so crucial to the story that, in spite of the leap backwards, they are still progressing the film. Sure, it’s more fun to watch a scene play out in front of us on screen instead of just being told about it but you need to make sure that what we’re watching play out is actually necessary.  Don’t just shove a flashback of a traumatic childhood incident at a farm in order to illustrate why the character’s a vegetarian, you can do that in another, more sensible way and save on the screen time.

The flashback is a relatively new technique utilised by filmmakers and was pioneered most notably by D. W. Griffith, whose contributions to filmmaking have had an exponential influence on modern day cinema. In his 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, Griffith coined the ‘switchback’ in which he would go back to a past event which was interjected into the progression of the narrative. The overt racist propaganda make the film an incredibly hard watch, but its significance in the long and convoluted history of the flashback is irrefutable. Its innovative first use of the technique paved the way for others to try their hand – Marcel Carne’s Le jour se lève famously being told almost entirely via flashback.

Until Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, however, flashbacks were somewhat of a rarity. The film plays out with Kane’s death and includes a series of flashbacks portraying his rags to riches story while trying to discover the identity of “Rosebud”. Mastering the technique, Welles manages to craft a thrilling and suspenseful narrative for audiences. Some of the most iconic cinematic moments of the film, and of film history in general, come from Welles’ use of the flashback, such as the deteriorating marriage, or the subtlety of the presented childhood. Ask anyone about their favourite use of flashbacks in film, and they’ll mention Citizen Kane.

Similarly as seminal as Citizen Kane in terms of well done flashbacks is Christopher Nolan’s neo-noir Memento, which is a film whose narrative is told extensively via flashback. Nolan not only manages to work four divergent flashback styles into a complex and puzzling narrative, but he does this without ever becoming too hard for the audience to understand. Each of these acts as a vital piece to the overarching puzzle, whose pieces fall together perfectly by the end of the film.

Following a similar style, David Fincher’s Gone Girl makes appreciable use of flashbacks to deliver us with the prompt romance of Nick and Amy in a way which reveals the right amount of exposition at the right time contributing to the veritable mystery. Fincher, in fact, potentially deserves to take home the ‘King of Flashback’ award, with Fight Club also making humorous and necessary use of the technique.

 And as a director, Wes Anderson utilises flashbacks spectacularly in his artistic catalogue of films, perhaps most notably in The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. With Moonrise Kingdom, the flashbacks embrace their inherently jarring nature and are weaved into the film with grace by Anderson, which contribute to the rich journey. More recently with TGBH, the added element of a different aspect ratio depending on the time frame was implemented to give the viewers a more fully realised sense of time.

There is something to be said about the misuse of flashbacks in film, however, and there has been active discussion in reference to the laziness of the technique. Simon Beaufoy, who worked with Danny Boyle on Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, has expressed his own discontent for the ‘memory film’ despite the previously mentioned being clear examples. Now I’m not saying that flashbacks are bad just because they’re an easy way of telling a story, but they become weak when they’re constantly used to progress the plot.

The more nuanced the flashback, the bigger the win. If, of course, you can pull it off successfully.

Words by Joseph Coupe

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