Flashback: memory and film narrative
To make sense of cinema’s fascination with the flashback, a brief detour to its real-world (and treatment room) effects is needed.
A flashback is a sudden involuntary memory that typically causes a psychological disturbance. We are transported back to the emotional effects of the past, but we experience them as happening in the present.
A flashback may be brief, as in a ‘flash of memory’ or extended, as in a longer recall, a kind of ‘waking dream.’ Although a flashback can be nostalgic (see my earlier post, A Short History of Nostalgia) or a particular form of longing for the past (“positive involuntary autobiographical memory”), it is more often treated as a memory that arrives unbidden (and often recurrently), the intrusion of a repressed or traumatic memory into our subjective present. As such, it functions as implicit memory, produced “without awareness that memory is involved,” or what we might call unconscious memory. It may relate to early childhood before we reached the age of explicit memory formation, or to trauma, where an extreme situation blocked or hindered that formation.
To take a simple example of flashbacks in relation to early childhood: a friend or partner says something which causes a sense of hurt or anger in you that is disproportionate to the remark. You may be experiencing a flashback to an early childhood experience, small or large, in which that hurt or anger was first felt. But you are unaware of that original event or experience. You have no ‘explicit’ memory of it. You relive the emotions produced by the past situation, but not the situation itself. You believe yourself to be fully in the present.
In trauma flashbacks, it is a disruption to explicit memory formation that causes the problem. As a result of the traumatic event, the
“normal processes that store our experiences into memory can go wrong…. a distressing experience has opposite effects in two different parts of the brain: the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala, a region of the brain involved in emotion, seemed to strongly encode the negative content of an experience while the hippocampus, which is involved in storing new memories, is only weakly activated.” (James Bisby, UCL, “The Possible Cause of Flashbacks Discovered,” The Conversation, 2016)
This helps us to understand why flashbacks figure so prominently in Post-traumatic Shock Disorder (PTSD). Sufferers recall the negative effects of trauma but not its “context – that is, the location where the event occurred or the time it occurred. This may result in the person involuntarily retrieving the traumatic event ‘out of context’ and experiencing it as though it was in the present.” (Bisby, 2016)
No matter what its provenance, a flashback is destabilizing, but it may assist the sufferer to piece together missing context in order to heal psychic wounds. Beyond the treatment rooms, we are a mystery to ourselves, and any memory work, including that related to flashbacks, may help to retrieve lost information, even if like memory itself, that information remains fragmentary or unreliable. In other words, flashbacks are a source of explanatory power.
Flashback and Film
As an artistic device, flashback has been used most effectively by cinema. Film historian Susan Hayward notes that post-war film noir and psychological melodrama are the two genres that made the most extensive use of flashbacks. Flashback works to structure a narrative, solve an enigma, usually a crime (film noir) or a state of mental disorder (melodrama). But whether the problem is crime or mental disorder, the real investigation is into the character at the heart of the narrative. In other words, flashbacks are always about subjectivity, precisely because they are given through that character. (See Susan Hayward, Key Concepts in Cinema Studies, 1996; see also Maureen Turim, Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History, 1989)
Typically, there is a fade or dissolve on the face of the person about to deliver a flashback memory, and this visual effect is often accompanied by a voiceover. But as in flashback itself, the device may be partial, rapid, and incomprehensible as, for example, in Hitchcock’s later film, Marnie (1964), where the main character’s trigger reactions to thunderstorms and the color red are only explained by an extended flashback/reveal at the end of the film. Or it may be lengthy, to the point of an entire narrative being relayed by flashback. Max Ophuls’s brilliant 1948 adaptation of the Stefan Zweig story, Letter From an Unknown Woman, is almost entirely revealed in flashback, as the deceased Lisa’s letter is read (in the present) by Stefan, the musician who failed to remember her.
It is perhaps no accident that the use of flashbacks, particularly in noir and melodrama, flourished in the post-war period when gender relations were destabilized and the popularisation of Freud was at its height. Noir tends to feature drifters or men weakened by involvement in crime (having been ensnared by a ‘dangerous’ woman) together with the detectives and insurance investigators tasked with solving the crime. The flashback, frequently accompanied by a voiceover, serves to tell the story and solve (or confess to) the crime, or more to the point, solve the problem of the noir hero’s compromised masculinity.
In the post-war melodrama (or women’s weepie) a transgressive female protagonist is analyzed, typically by a doctor, therapist, husband, or detective versed in pop Freudianism. She may be under the control of an oppressive mother (Bette Davis in Now Voyager, 1942), over-ambitious (Lana Turner in Imitation of Life, 1959), over-possessive of men (Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, 1945), betraying middle-class privilege for love (Jane Wyman in All that Heaven Allows, 1955), or even pathologically addicted to domestic perfection (Joan Crawford in Harriet Craig, 1950). A study of Hollywood films for the year 1955 found that one movie in ten contained either a psychiatrist or psychiatric problem. Hollywood was crawling with ‘sick’ women in need of ‘repair’ for the post-war settlement of patriarchy. (Janet Walker, “Hollywood, Freud and the Representation of Women,” 1987)
It is these genres that prompted Hayward to describe flashback as a heavily ‘gendered’ device in Hollywood cinema. And in at least one example, we find flashback negotiating the gendered borders of genre itself. Mildred Pierce (1945) includes a classically shot noir story set in the present (Monty’s murder) but draws on the visual style and discourses of melodrama/the ‘women’s picture’ in extended flashback sequences in which Mildred narrates the back story of her marriage, divorce, motherhood, and career. (See Pam Cook, “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce,” 1978). It’s curious, if not entirely surprising, that the trailer for Mildred Pierce presents it almost entirely as noir, including a line-up of the male characters as talking heads, each testifying to the ‘threat’ of Mildred. Yet this runs entirely counter to the film’s extended and far more empathic (melodrama) flashbacks in which we follow Mildred’s disappointments in marriage, her financial and career struggles, and finally her dangerous (to herself) devotion to motherhood.
Next up: flashbulb memories, the last in the Flash series!