REEL RECOLLECTION: Notes on the Cinematic Depiction of Memory

by Harvey Greenberg , Krin Gabbard

January 27, 1999


Both mainstream movie melodrama and avant garde experiment have always used the traumatic, therapeutic, or otherwise creative impact of memory. Since film began, many genres have depicted remembrance, and the less obtrusive their devices, the more potent the portrayal. A deceptively seamless surface, however, can conceal complex techniques, ideology, and aesthetics. This essay touches on salient aspects of screen memory (often extending Maureen Turim's work): the precursors of reel recollection in literature and drama, notably the XIX century stage and magic lantern show; essential flashback parameters, and the variations on these paradigms as cinema evolved (notably, the questioning of memory's reliability); and the recent preoccupation of mainstream cinema with post-traumatic memory, notably in films about survivors of the Holocaust, Viet Nam, and child abuse. The essay also considers inflections of the representation of memory by successive psychological and neuro-biological theories, also by different national mentalitis.

"Memories! You're talking about memories!!"

Rick Deckard, in Blade Runner (l982)

The impact of troubling memories has always been a staple of movie melodrama, including a spate of contemporary films about adult survivors of child abuse who recover their mental health by retrieving past traumas in therapy. On a broader scale, genres diverse as the epic, western, comedy, war and weird movie have been pervaded by memories and the depiction of remembrance since the early silent era.

Reel recollection would seem a transparent enough business. Rick Blaine sits in his empty nightclub, plunged into boozy despair after encountering the supposedly faithless Ilsa Lund again. He commands Sam -- "You played it for, play it for me...", and a dissolve magically sweeps the viewer back to Rick's affair with Ilsa in pre-war Paris. In a model of compressed exposition, a self-contained, utterly plausible world is brought to vibrant life for a few minutes, against Casablanca's (l943) larger canvas. The miniature melodrama concludes as Rick stands at the train station, desolated by his love's inexplicable last letter. Rain blurs the page: Ilsa's words seem to melt in a shower of falling tears as the scene fades. One is then whisked as effortlessly to the Café Americain, where "today"'s Ilsa stands in the doorway. A satisfying sense of closure -- "And that's the way it was..." attends the flashback's return to the way it is.

The sequence goes down easy as oysters. Yet, upon reflection, could Rick's retina actually have camcorded the flashback's myriad sights and sounds? That he saw Ilsa wearing blue, heard the cannons pounding, one can easily imagine. But could he have taken in every detail of the elegant supper club seen by the viewer, or the panorama receding behind him and Ilsa as they tour through Paris, totally absorbed in each other's company?

Was Rick's original take on the flashback's events so exquisitely framed and lighted? As he remembers Paris, does Rick actually hear the melody of "As Time Goes By" play in his mind, taken up by Max Steiner's lush score, its apt modulations smoothing the viewer's path into and out of the flashback? Was there actually so little time between the successive announcements over the loudspeaker outside Frenchy's bistro between the mellifluous declaration of the enemy advance in unaccented English and the harsh German barking out the terms of occupation? Did the timbre of these voices so adroitly reflect and counterpoise urbane humanism against fascist repression?

Beneath the deceptively seamless surface of Rick's remembrance lie a host of far from simple, even paradoxical technical effects, ideological assumptions, and aesthetic operations. Indeed, the very existence of cinema involves a primal paradox: every movie moment represents a memory uncertainly preserved, whether upon nitrate film stock or digitally encoded; a perennial "presence" in the midst of perpetual absence, rendered even more uncanny, more poignant if its participants have themselves vanished from the scene.

This paper proposes to overview and interrogate the salient aspects of screen memory -- including the celluloid depiction of traumatic remembrance. A voluminous psychological literature on the clinical, neurobiological, and existential aspects of memory contains only a few passing references to its cinematic representation. Surprisingly, film scholarship also has had little to say on the subject before Maureen Turim's Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History l -- and little substantive afterwards.

Turim authoritatively demonstrates that flashbacks are central to the production and comprehension of screen memory. Her study is exemplary for its supple, undogmatic articulation of psychoanalysis with other paradigms -- formalism, structuralism and post- structuralism, theories of culture and ideology, philosophy and science of memory. We will frequently recur to this seminal work, and use her formulations as a touchstone for further speculation.

Since Hugo Munsterberg's landmark research at the beginning of the century,2 psychologists and film scholars alike have frequently been tempted into drawing too convenient analogies between real and reel memory. A capacity for recollection serves complex purposes for individual and species. From a narrow Darwinian perspective, homo sapiens remembers in order to survive. Memory permits construction of a coherent life narrative; an archive of past experience enhances the ability to make useful decisions about the future, whether one is trying to avoid an oncoming truck or chose a mate.3

By comparison the Hollywood film-making practice which still prevails puts memory at the service of facilitating narrative sui generis -- efficiently telling the tale towards the consumer's better pleasure and the producer's larger profits. It is the survival of the industry, not of the species, at stake here.

Certainly cinema can instruct and enlighten -- even profoundly so. Viewers may be helpfully or misguidedly tutored on every life issue imaginable. But the highest premium of most mainstream movie makers remains the presentation of an uncluttered, compelling story line. In this context, considerable oversimplification and distortion of memory processes must necessarily occur.


Oral and written equivalents of the flashback are encountered across time and culture in efforts diverse as Homer and Lady Murasaki's striking account of medieval Japanese court life, The Tale of Genji.4 As the Western novel evolved, its heroes and heroines were increasingly prone to vivid remembrance spurred by melodramatic circumstances in the fictive present.

Commencing in the late eighteenth century, explanatory or revelatory flashbacks came to pervade fiction high and low ranging from penny-dreadful Gothics and romances, to the infinitely more artful tales of Dickens, to the psychologically oriented novels of James and Conrad. As the movie cameras began to roll at the fin-de-siecle, Proust was writing his remarkable obsessive inventory of the past. In time, the cinematic flashback itself would influence the literary practice of Joyce, Dos Passos, and Hemingway, as well as the avant-garde plays of O'Neill and Rice.

The declaimed remembrance of past events by a participant, witness, or impersonal narrator has been a prominent feature of world theater for several millennia, from Attic tragedy to the Kabuki stage. Under the sway of the novel's conventions, with sophisticated new stage technology such as gaslighting at hand, nineteenth-century theater evolved strategies for exhibiting internal mental processes -- memories, fantasied wishes or impulses, dreams, hallucinations -- which by all accounts resembled the modern flashback. John Fell's study of nineteenth century dramatic and related practice 5 indicates that the line between fantasy and actual memory was often considerably blurred.

In the common theatrical "vision scene" of the period, a character's reveries or recollections were enacted upon a different part of the stage, frequently behind a scrim. The "second stage" was located well behind the site of the principal action, or upon a platform elevated above it. At the appropriate moments the gaslights were brought up on the vision scene, then down again. The primary scene was sometimes, but by no means always dimmed and brightened according to the subsidiary scene's appearance and disappearance.

Fell believes that vision scenes evolved earlier in the nineteenth century from another popular, quasi-theatrical entertainment -- the lantern-slide show. At the appropriate moment of narrated fantasy or recollection, a relevant slide was projected by a second machine, so as to appear in the midst of the main action.6 It was usually inserted into a space contiguous to the character: the "vision" was commonly located to the right and slightly above the protagonist -- a locution often encountered in the cartoon strip and comic book representation of revery or memory.


Many early film makers were knowledgeable about the stagecraft or lantern show techniques describe above. They were quick to adapt these cinema-like theatrical strategies and extra-theatrical devices to the new medium. A viewer of today often finds it difficult to determine whether early cinematic analogues to the "vision scene" represent a dream, a fantasy, or an actual memory. It is moot whether audiences of the time experienced similar confusion.

The sense of temporality is also occasionally obscure in portions of early film strips which seem to be depicting remembrance: it is uncertain whether one is watching a memory, or an action occurring elsewhere within the filmic "present".7 Such ambiguity disappeared as a cinematic vocabulary adequate to the task of inscribing memory was rapidly refined. By l9l4, the essentials of flashback practice had been established in Hollywood productions, and thereafter quickly spread abroad or were developed elsewhere de novo.

The essential flashback emerges out of a protagonist's encounter with a psychologically overdetermined event, person, or object. Recollection may be conscious or spontaneous. Typical cues indicating a flashback is about to occur include a close up of the protagonist's face evincing a thoughtful attitude, a "dreaminess" in the film score, and the beginning of voice-over narration.

A portal next opens into the past for a variable time, commonly spurred by a sight and/or sound connected to the engendering stimulus.8 The protagonist may or -- less frequently -- may not be seen in the flashback segment. The portal is then closed; one is returned to the filmic present and the character's reaction to the evoked memory through reflection and/or action. Standard flashback form and content were immediately subject to substantive experiments dictated by advances in technology, varying narrative demands of popular genres, and specific script requirements. Developments which were pleasurable to watch and made sound narrative sense were quickly incorporated into the rhetoric of mainstream cinema -- a revisionary practice which still continues. Many major flashback elaborations were already securely in place by l9l8.

The importance of narrative efficiency did not preclude aesthetic considerations from playing a crucial role in the flashback's evolution. Great pride was taken throughout the studio system in wedding art to commerce. The system allowed for a certain amount of experimentation for its own sake. Inevitably, however, the most radical revisions of standard flashback rhetoric would take place outside the system, in art and avant-garde cinema -- of which more presently.

We now turn to the most significant flashback parameters, and their common elaborations.


The flashback's depiction of the past collides with another fundamental paradox of cinema -- its perennial present tense. Whether the movie is set today, in l789 or 2OOl, viewers quickly settle into its time frame, experiencing the scene in an unquestioned here and now. A Coleridgian willing suspension of disbelief may persuade one about a fictional reality, if its crafting on page or stage is sufficiently convincing. Cinema possesses exceptionally impressive powers towards these ends.

It is far from clear how a movie is able to construct an abiding sense of "presentness" as it unrolls, so that one seems to equably inhabit both its time and one's own. The effect is not merely dependent upon cinema's vast technological and financial resources, for even a pedestrian cheapie can sometimes strongly assert its present register. The ability to promote a feeling of presentness seems to reside within what has been termed the cinematic apparatus, in some general property or working of the medium upon its audience.9

One such operation is the effacement of the apparatus' artifices of operation. According to Daniel Dayan, the movie viewer is enfolded into the film's net through "suturing" strategies like the shot/reverse shot,10 such that "one appears somehow to create the movie within one's head as the projector unspools."ll Christian Metz implies that the overwhelming impression of cinematic here and nowness is related to the viewer's consuming identification with the camera, in turn "with himself, with himself as a pure act of perception (as wakefulness, alertness): as the condition of the perceived, and hence as a kind of transcendental subject, which comes before every there is..."12

Arguing intricately from the perspective of Lacanian analytic theory, Metz asserts that the peculiar presence of the cinematic image within a viewer's Imaginary is paradoxically linked to the previously cited primal absence that informs the medium. In this context, the viewer supposedly then yearns towards the screen's "lost" plenitude, as the child within once desired the false plenitude of its own misapprehended image.l3

A flashback threatens to rupture cinema's intense present register, violating the medium's native thrust towards temporal homeostasis. Should a flashback last too long, the sense of having traveled from "now" to "then" -- the "remembering effect", as it were -- will begin to fade as its peculiar alterity is vitiated.

A longer flashback thus risks reconstituting the very impression of the present it displaces to become a new "present within the past". Operating with the intuitive pragmatism which has always informed developments in film rhetoric, mainstream film makers have countered this potential by making most of their flashbacks last no longer approximately five minutes.

A sanctioned exception is the film which intentionally creates a "present within the past". Its nominal present comprises a brief introduction to a central narrative which unfolds as a single flashback, or through a series of prolonged flashbacks. Examples are found in popular genres such as the war movie (A Walk In The Sun (l945), the western (Fort Apache, [l948]), the historical/biblical epic (The Man Who Would Be King (l975), film noir (Murder, My Sweet [l944]), the woman's picture (Letter From An Unknown Woman [l948]), as well as the occasional art film (Maria Montez [l955]).

Pictures such as these may conclude within the "second" past, or return to the present for a tidy resolution of loose plot ends, with the advancement of some psychological/ideological perspective upon the entire narrative. The viewer enjoys the double benefits of being firmly sutured into a history of prior events, then awakening into the closure satisfaction of the return.

Flashbacks shorter than the standard were rare throughout the silent era, and relatively uncommon during the studio period. Brevity was probably discouraged because film makers worried that the resultant fragmentation and sparseness of information would disrupt the sacrosanct flow of narrative for viewers.

Brief incisions into the past, liminal to a minute in length, have been increasing in mainstream America cinema since the Sixties and Seventies. Their greater frequency reflects an incorporation of innovative rhetorical strategies drawn from art and foreign cinema, a phenomenon which will be addressed later.


A classic flashback such as that cited from Casablanca begins on a dissolve. The filmic present is faded down, a past locale is simultaneously brought up with a few seconds of visual and (sometimes) sonic overlap. When action at the site of remembrance ends, the film returns to the present on a similar dissolve in reverse, typically re-entering the filmic present at the precise point the "remembering" began. Less often, a fade in/fade out technique is used, with no interpenetration of past and present.

The impression of effortless entry and exit is facilitated by cunning symmetrical linkages between the flashback's "now and then" and "then and now". The viewer's insertion is enhanced by artful match cuts made upon character, action, object, and sound common to present and past scenes. A particularly powerful bridge effect is created by "bleeding" a musical theme from the filmic present into the flashback and out again, e.g.. the use of David Raksin's haunting eponymous theme for Laura (l944) throughout the film.

An object which precipitates a flashback may re-appear unchanged in the past sequence, or may assist the segue's efficiency through metaphorical transformation. Thus, in Citizen Kane (l94l), Orson Welles uses the whiteness of a page from banker Thatcher's memoirs (these are being read by the reporter in Thatcher's claustrophobic memorial vault) as a bridge into a winter scene from the hero's childhood. The page opens up into the exhilarating expanse of whiteness amidst which young Charlie romps gaily; simultaneously, inside a squalid cabin Mrs. Kane is delivering him to Thatcher's oppressive care over her husband's impotent protests. Images of freedom and confinement adroitly echo back and forth across the flashback, mediated by the originating page.

Revisions of formal devices for initiating and ending flashbacks may aim at disrupting the orderliness of the dissolve\redissolve schema towards a deliberately disquieting effect -- as in cutting directly to and from the past without a dissolve to capture the abrupt intrusion of traumatic memories. Other strategies refuse the classic flashback's carefully designed symmetry between present and past. Thus, the picaresque, playfully modernist quality of Woody Allen's Annie Hall (l977) is enhanced by several flashbacks which do not return to the originating site, but resume instead at a completely different locale and a new present.


The development of the feature length film during the silent era afforded film makers time to supplement an objective presentation of memory (objective according to the maker's notion of that objective reality) with memories saturated by internal perception. The viewer's impression of "what happened" could now be enriched by the character's account of "how I felt while it was happening".

One's awareness of a protagonist's subjective emotional state in a flashback is intimately bound up with the formal means of representing recall. When past events are enunciated in a fashion akin to the novel's third-person narration, memories appear to be occurring outside the protagonist's head. Thoughts and feelings must be then inferred from dialogue, as well as the actor's extra-verbal skills. The protagonist's psychological state during the flashback may also be clarified after the fact, through action and conversation after returning to the filmic present.

Autobiographical voice-over narration substantially enhances flashback subjectivity. The practice attained a high level of sophistication during the Forties, especially in film noir and noir related genres (vide infra). An autobiographical voice-over is customarily granted substantive authority by the viewer to furnish an accurate description of the protagonist's inner life and external reality. Going against this grain, experimenters like Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa have rendered the voice-over's supposedly reliable information suspect.

It is not unusual for an autobiographical, or another person's voice-over description of the past, whether of past emotions or occurrences, to be revealed as exaggerated, incomplete, or otherwise flawed later in the film. Flashbacks containing a conscious fabrication by a supposedly reliable narrator are, however, rare.

A frequently cited instance is Stage Fright's (l95O) initial "lying" flashback, which provides an alibi to Hitchcock's charming villain for the murder which he is eventually shown to have committed. The viewer is lulled into believing him by the sequence's strong internal consistency, in turn due to its skillful means of enunciation, as well as its utterly plausible narration by an utterly treacherous psychopath.

Voice-overs of characters other than the chief protagonist frequently partake of the autobiographical voice-over's implicit authority. However, a different narrator may exhibit negative or positive bias towards the hero, or have faulty, incomplete knowledge of the past -- a frequent device in the private eye and trial genres. A medley of voice-overs propels the narrative of The Barefoot Contessa (l954) with exceptional dramatic effectiveness: in extended flashbacks, the close friend, press agent, and husband of the murdered star, Maria Vargas, each offer tantalizing fragments about her ultimately enigmatic persona.

Analogous to the novel's third person narration, an anonymous voice-over flashback may only describe the external milieu, furnishing little or no information about a protagonist's intrapsychic life. On the other hand, it may provide an accurate, empathic account of the protagonist's emotions, or convey acute perceptions about the character's psyche from a distant, even glacial perspective (e.g., the somber third person narration of Barry Lyndon [l975]). Francois Truffaut's oeuvre is particularly hallmarked by voice-overs -- anonymous or otherwise -- which uniquely blend insight, compassion, and detached irony (in Jules et Jim [l96l], The Wild Child [l969], The Woman Next Door [l98l], so forth).

Subjective and objective flashbacks may be sharply differentiated, but the distinction is frequently blurred by the wealth of surrounding material insinuated into even the most subjective sequence. As noted, during Rick's intensely personal flashback to his love affair in pre-Occupation Paris, far more is going on around him than he would ever be capable of remembering. During extreme examples -- Turim discovers these more often in silent rather than sound features, notably in Griffith's films -- flashback recollection seems to drift completely away from its source. Usually, however, the drift is less spectacular -- but it would still would make for an uncanny, or glaringly inappropriate state of affairs were it not so artfully concealed.

Popular cinema's ubiquitous tendency to detach memory wholly or partially from its apparent agency raises crucial questions about the identity of a film's "rememberer", as well as the ends towards which remembrance is being shown (to an audience hungry for narrative and arguably not much concerned with such niceties). Who actually shapes a film's flashbacks and ideology? Is it the single controlling intelligence of a grand auteur, of an old studio mogul, contemporary producer, studio chief, or agent with maxi-clout? Or

is it a creative team -- the director, writer, photographer, editor, and others -- inchoately incorporating, and expressing collective ideology? Or, finally, is it a unique conflation of creative and business personnel, each more or less influenced by the culture's collective mind set, exercising more or less influence over the product according to time, place, and film industry conditions?

Whoever the putative maker(s) behind screened memory may be, it is likely that subjective recall within a flashback is enriched with objective elements mainly to enhance the film's aesthetic pleasure and narrative effectiveness for the viewer. However, setting issues of craft aside, objective elements may also be used, intentionally or otherwise, to serve some ideological or political purpose -- particularly in those films with an avowed mission to make "sense" of history to an audience, as discussed in the next section.


On screen as in life, personal history is intimately bound up with historical circumstance. The epic and costume melodrama as well as the "biopic" are specifically tasked to explicate the past entertainingly, usually by interweaving an individual's story with the history of a city, a nation, the world, of religion, of art, industry, or sport. The articulation between personal and larger history may less obviously inform the pleasures of other genres -- e.g., the western and war film.

Flashbacks usually "remember" historical events or circumstances from the character's recent past, less often from years earlier, rarely from centuries ago (a familiar trope of science-fiction and fantasy). Substantive difference of dress, design, and speech can highlight the chasm between current time and distant past, to create an intriguing sense of an epic or costume drama beheld in intense compression. (e.g., Highlander [l986]).

The protagonist is absent from one type of historical flashback. In epic or biblical dramas set entirely in the past, the revelation of weighty occasion has often been assigned to an anonymous, implicitly contemporary Olympian voiceover, an effect which none too subtly constructs a monolithic "past which cannot be argued." For instance, Casablanca opens with a March Of Time-like announcer portentously describing the flight of European refugees, while columns of the dispossessed are seen trudging wearily forward, superimposed over a revolving globe. In a few deft strokes, the sequence establishes the background of fascist oppression against which Rick's subsequent romantic and political conflicts will be played out.l4

Impersonal flashbacks regularly occur in the same film with flashbacks which show characters intimately involved with historical events. The latter may be specific and momentous -- the bombing of Hiroshima, JFK's assassination. Usually, however, the protagonist occupies some corner of a less famous, but nevertheless important piece of the past. In either case, the personalized flashback partakes on a smaller scale in the narrative purpose of the entire film: to make history more intimate, more understandable; to document its immediate and long-term impact upon the characters, and by extension the society they embody, according to the film's ideological or political agenda.

For instance, in The Best Years of Our Lives (l946), a heroic airman, recently returned to the American heartland and out of work, visits an immense field of B-l7s being scrapped. He enters a plane, sits down in its ruined cockpit, begins to flash back to a mission, then is jarred out of his memories by the irritated voice of the salvage chief standing outside.

The protagonist's subjective experience is set off by strong objective elements -- a rising angry roar of music fused with the sounds of real air craft; anxious whip-pans from one ruined engine to the next; a dolly shot from behind the character, moving towards his back as if the camera itself were about to take off -- all conveying the uncanny sense of an immensely powerful, dangerous machine brought to ground with its human counterpart. The sequence encapsulates the film's central concern, one which greatly preoccupied the collective mind of the time: whether the veteran could successfully reintegrate a warrior self into peacetime existence, or flounder in the attempt.

Flashback construction of this sort may be undertaken with avowed polemical purposes -- right, left, or center. (The Best Years of Our Lives was intentionally aimed at calming anxiety over the World War II vet's adjustment.) However, the creators of popular cinema are more likely to be unconscious, or at best dimly aware that their work is addressing a host of concerns held in common by maker and viewer, whether to reify or contest them (usually the former). Indeed, this condition of unawareness often lends added potency to a film's ideological arguments.l5


Few mainstream film makers have intentionally set out to illustrate the latest hypothesis about memory as their work's raison-d'etre. However, just as cinema has perceived other cultural preoccupations through its peculiar distorting lens, so from one time and locale to another changing philosophical and scientific theories about memory have been embodied -- often idiosyncratically -- upon the screen.

Over centuries of Western dramatic practice, Aristotelian poetics has informed notions about memory still alive and well at the Bijou -- and not only at Western Bijous. According to the Aristotelian vision's tidy linearity, the past exists as an archive of seminal events, registered in pristine detail but inevitably subject to simple forgetfulness, tampering, or false report.

Ripeness is all: when the turning of fate assembles the designated characters at the appropriate time and place, the gates of the archive open, and the past is recuperated through public remembrance. Although initially doubted, the absolute truth emerges out of an accumulation of recollections towards tragic or comedic ends -- Laius' death at the hands of his son, the slave's mistaken exchange at birth with his erstwhile master.

In this process of discovery that Aristotle termed anagnorisis, events from the recent and remote past are recalled at reasonable length, in reasonably logical order, to blazon forth the indelible imprint upon the present of what has come before. D.W. Griffith's cinema replaces verbal narration with an artfully linked chain of visual flashbacks and a minimum of title cards. The weave of accumulated recollection through which Orphans of the Storm (l922) unfolds the entangled histories of its sister heroines is one of many classic anagnorises in Griffith's oeuvre. This dramatic, systematically ordered disclosure through flashback, often placing the protagonist's situation within a larger historical context, quickly went on to become a staple in mainstream cinema's tactics of remembrance.

A rough-hewn version of Freudian psychology began appearing in American movies during the Thirties. Pop-Freudian assumptions about personality and the narrative strategies bred out of them influenced diverse film genres throughout the Forties and Fifties, remaining quiet givens in many mainstream films today.l6

Hollywood's peculiar appropriation of psychoanalysis melded agreeably with its earlier assimilation of Aristotelian anagnorisis. The portentous determinism of much Tinseltown Freud sorts well with the fatalistic operation of Greek tragedy's "infernal machine". Instead of standing helpless before the inscrutable will of the Gods or the turning of fate, the protagonist of Forties film noir, the woman's melodrama, or the "therapeutic" picture stands helpless before the haunting of repressed traumas from the past, the coil of unconscious motives, the eruption of disavowed and dangerous desire.

Like the camera lens, the Freudian-shaded character's eye sees all, then stores every dark secret it beholds in the unconscious, as a camera's images are imprinted upon film (the analogy between human and camera perception was frequently drawn in early pop-psychoanalytic discourse). With the proper stimulus to the protagonist's -- and camera's -- free association, the memory archive opens, buried truth is hailed into the light, and its impact upon the present is acknowledged with dire or liberating consequences (e.g., the noir anti-hero's hurtful flashback to the treacherous femme fatale he has sought to forget only reminds him of his hopeless love and accentuates his despair (Criss Cross, [l949]); the traumatic recollection deliberately provoked by a therapist leads to his client's recovery (The Snake Pit [l948]). As in Greek drama and the standard Griffithian flashback, the anagnorisis of the classic Forties and Fifties Hollywood "psychological" flashback discloses its occulted truths through a clear narrative trajectory, with an orderly beginning, middle, and end (e.g., the hypnotically induced central traumatic memory of The Three Faces Of Eve (l957) which shows Eve as child being forced to kiss her dead grandmother at the latter's funeral [an explanation which would now be deemed grossly insufficient to explain her multiple personality disorder]).

The relentless linearity of the average American flashback, with its foursquare presentation of character and motivation -- even when tinctured by a subjective, psychologizing thrust -- still dictates the prevailing depiction of memory in popular movies today. But Hollywood's influence has hardly been monolithic. Turim describes a continuous feedback between American and foreign flashback practice -- although the former has ever been prone to incorporate the latter's alternate strategies towards its own entertaining ends.

By the l92Os, European art film directors and an increasing number of mainstream auteurs were using flashbacks in more subtle, complex fashion than Griffith and his successors. (Then as now, the affinity between "art" and popular movie making was greater abroad than in Hollywood.) The foreign work was inflected by various philosophic/scientific theories about memory, as well as differences in national sensibility.

Turim notes that French flashback practice in the l92Os owed a debt to Bergson, Proust, and the Impressionist movement inter alia. Directors, critics, and intellectuals (especially in the "cine-clubs" of the day), were mutually involved in interrogating issues of cinematic temporality and the psychology of the image. The French film makers rejected positivist accounts of memory, whether mechanistic Freudian associationism or the facile linearity of Griffith.

Instead, their work explored the impressionistic play of remembrance between present and past, the pervasive influence of subjective perception upon the supposedly received truth of memory. For auteurs such as Louis Delluc, Jean Epstein, Jean Vigo and like-minded directors outside France, the flashback did not provide a mirror-sharp image of the world-as-it-was, securely grounding the subject in a matrix of personal and national history in aid of justifying things-as-they-are. Consciously retrieved memory was less privileged than Proust's or Bergson's powerful "surging forth" of recall, triggered by a perceptual flash and mediated through the liberal use of montage.

In the French silent cinema and early sound films, flashbacks became more detached from objective reality; more colored by the rememberer's inner emotional world; more fragmentary, allusive -- such that an equivocal status began to be conferred upon the past event as well as its impact upon the present.

Both in content and length, the cuing offered by images in French and other foreign flashbacks of the period also tended to provide less information about the past, so that viewers often had to work harder at decoding them.l7 Flashbacks which summon up the most stimulating interpretative labor are found in early surrealist masterpieces like Luis Bunuel's The Andalusian Dog (l928). Unfortunately, surrealist cinema was also capable of extolling subjectivity to the point of fashionable obscurantism.

Turim observes that each national cinema put a unique stamp upon the more adventurous flashback practice obtaining outside Hollywood during the Twenties and early Thirties. In the typical German art picture of the era, the memory of real events is peculiarly tinctured by, and sometimes difficult to distinguish from the dreams, fantasies, or outright delusions of its troubled characters. Films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (l9l9) and Secrets of the Soul (l926) meld a lurid expressionist style with a no less febrile refraction of Freud. Synecdoches of the entire expressionist project, flashbacks display distortions in focus, canted camera angles, chiaroscuro lighting, and the like.

The Swedish silent flashback was notably imbricated with the fantastic, the preternatural or supernatural. In the films of directors like Mauritz Stiller (The Treasure of Arne [l9l9]) and Viktor Sjostrom (The Phantom Chariot [l92O], the line between recollection, dream, and apparition is substantially blurred. Ingmar Bergman's remarkable flashbacks often derive from this tradition.

Few movies from the silent Japanese period survive; Teinosuke Kinugasa's A Page of Madness (l926) has been cited for the striking similarity of its flashbacks to European work of the period, which the director had apparently never seen. The film's protagonist is a sailor who has become a janitor of an insane asylum in order to be with his psychotic wife. His recollections, bewilderingly interpolated with his fantasies, are exceptionally splintered, often difficult to place in time and "defocalized" – such that it is sometimes hard to determine that they are emanating from him.

Memory in A Page of Madness has become "the poetic province of subjective consciousness...ironic, haunting, almost another world into which characters are drawn..."18 The uncanny lyricism of the film's flashbacks owe more to the stages of Noh and Kabuki than the European screen, particularly to Noh's highly stylized intertwining of two separate streams in time. Noh would go on to be deliberately conflated with European traditions in the flashback construction of later Japanese cinema.

The initial wave of innovation in silent flashback practice was succeeded by a exceptionally inventive period of experimentation in American popular cinema which began in the late Thirties, and concluded approximately in the early Fifties. The signatures of the silent innovators are most evident in noir and noir-related pictures, but also spread to genres far removed from noir concerns, such as the Western (e.g., Pursued [l947]). American film makers adapted noir flashback strategies from the German expressionist rhetoric discussed above; or German emigres themselves applied their former work to congenial mainstream genres such as the private eye film. In turn, many European film makers began applying noir's narrative and visual tropes to their flashbacks, in a characteristic recirculation of technique.

A third, arguably the most influential wave of flashback innovation commenced during the late Fifties and is still unfolding today. It pushes the bold work of the silent Twenties to the edge of the envelope and beyond regarding length, content, and style. Third wave flashback imagery is manipulated through slow or accelerated motion, extreme close-up, freeze framing. Recall is exceptionally saturated with and distorted by the character's subjectivity, by conscious bias and unconscious perception.

Remembering is no longer constructed as the retrieval of a unified, logical chain of events from the memory archive in pristine condition. The past may be revealed in fragmented flashes, disjunctive jumps suffused with intense affect. A third wave flashback often supplies exceptionally meager information; misleads or leads nowhere; summons multiple alternate plausible or fantastic pasts, or even intimates an actual or possible future outcome through flashing forward.

Recollection can involve intricate feed-back loops, so that recall itself influences the content of further recall. The reliability of the remembered event is everywhere rendered suspect; indeed, the very reliability of memory itself is held up to scrutiny. In the most demanding third wave efforts, a spectator cannot easily remain passive before the sheer number of flashbacks with their the dense weave of possibility. More than ever before, the viewer must become an active participant in the creation of the memory text, or suffer the deprivation of its meaning.

The third wave renaissance in flashback practice again arose chiefly in France. Significant contributions also originated elsewhere on the European continent and in Japan. Important participants include French New Wave auteurs Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, and -- most notably -- Alain Resnais; the still active surrealists Luis Bunuel and Jean Cocteau; diverse foreign directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonina, Bernardo Bertolucci, Andrez Wajda, Kenzo Mizoguchi, Nagisa Oshima, and Nicholas Roeg.

If any one of these directors must be singled out as most seminal it would be Resnais, supreme poet of post-traumatic recollection whose characters, bruised by war or mere intimacy, often compulsively seek to recuperate a catastrophic time from which they instinctively recoil (Hiroshima, Mon Amour [l959], Last Year At Marienbad [l96l]).

Throughout his project Resnais has been contesting whether the reconstruction of a "real" narrative past can ever truly be accomplished, given the conflated factors of profound subjective distortion, innate resistance to recall, and difficulty mining truth from the vast storehouse of memory images. Experimenting with virtually every flashback parameter, the director has marshaled a panoply of elegant formal and technical means to propound compelling arguments on both sides of the debate, often in the same film.

Consciously or intuitively, third wave flashback innovators were tutored by the significant ideological and aesthetic forces of the day. Resnais found the fragmented anti- humanist subjectivity of the French nouvelle roman -- notably the writing of Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet – conducive to his interrogation of memory (Robbe-Grillet went on to script Last Year at Marienbad for him). As it had in the Twenties, Dada and surrealist practice continued to inform the flashbacks of Bunuel and Jean Cocteau, and contributed to the aleatory, ambiguous flashback quality of Resnais, Godard, as well other New Wave directors.19

Turim characterizes the sensibility behind the third phase of foreign flashback experimentation as essentially modernist. She notes, but does not perhaps sufficiently emphasize its strong post-modern component. As post-World War II optimism yielded to Cold War uncertainty, the concern of continental thinkers such as Levi-Strauss with illuminating the deep structures underpinning artistic, social and scientific discourse gradually gave way to the view that the text, the play of language, and by implication life itself was ruled by a pervasive slipperiness of signifiers and signification.

By the late Sixties, a condition of profound indeterminacy appeared de rerum naturae to the French avant-garde and other like-minded European intellectuals, as the conjoined evils of patriarchy and logocentrism were being debunked, the notion of an all- controlling subject was denounced, and the death of history was declaimed.

Intriguingly, films containing early third wave flashbacks seemed to meditate on such ideological issues prior to their conscious "thinking-through" in the projects of Derrida, Lacan, the later Barthes and Foucault. In l96l, for instance, Last Year at Marienbad glossed the pitfalls in positing a unified subject with unified memories, out of which a coherent, objectively accounted-for present could be constructed.

It is not as clear whether the third wave flashback was influenced by new scientific theorizing about memory and cognition, paralleling the impact of the post-structuralist, post-modern philosophical climate.2O Turim particularly cites a crucial paradigm shift within scientific and cinematic practice occurring since the Sixties, away from metaphors of inscribing and recalling the past which implicitly posit a camera model, towards tropes about memory drawn from computer programming and information processing theory.

Instead of the brain simplistically recording a visual memory chain towards its wholesale regurgitation on cue, recent neurobiological research suggests that the cerebrum decodes and encodes "bits" of visual information along with bits from other senses dispersed throughout the frontal cortex. Upon requisite stimulus, the appropriate fragments are then recombined as memories in a complex dynamic involving short and long-term storage sites. Neuroscientist Steven Rose cautions against drawing naive, overly mechanistic computer analogies to this human cybernetic activity:

"Brains do not work with information in the computer sense, but with meaning...each time we remember, we in some senses do work on and transform our memories; they are not simply being called up from store and, once consulted, replaced unmodified. Our memories are recreated each time we remember." 2l

If adventurous film makers did not intentionally call upon contemporary neurobiological research in fabricating the third wave flashback, it can be argued that cinema and science have each constituted different sites for exploring the same inchoate notions about perception, consciousness and memory which arose synchronously in the collective mind-set because the time was ripe. This mysterious parallelism has repeatedly occurred throughout the reach of history, notably during major technological transformations.


The recent innovations in the flashback roughly came of age when the old Hollywood studio system was breaking up due to antitrust legislation and various economic factors. Freed from the studio's constraints upon radical experimentation, independent American directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick, and Robert Altman began integrating third wave strategies into their pictures during the Sixties and Seventies.

The flashbacks of Coppola, Altman, and Scorsese were the most "continental" with regard to articulating elegant technique with serious psychological aims. Coppola's The Conversation (l974) uses Resnais-like flashback techniques to undertake a Resnais-like inquiry into the equivocal nature of memory and subjectivity. Its supremely alienated anti- hero, Harry Caul, is an expert in surreptitious surveillance, hired by an enigmatic corporation executive to tape his wife and a man who may be her lover.

Caul pieces together the couples' conversation in an urban mall out of the snippets of recording his cadre has collected from dispersed vantage points. He begins to suspect that his work may lead to the couples' murder, withholds it from his employer, and tries to head off the killings he has foreseen. But the executive is slain by the couple, whose deadly ambitions Caul grasps upon another obsessive close-reading of the conversation. After all his tapes are stolen, Caul is last seen ransacking his apartment in an impotent search to uncover the tap which may herald his own doom.

We have commented upon popular cinema's co-optation of flashback innovation in aid of narrating a tale well, within familiar genre expectations. The fragmentation and ambiguity of the third wave flashback comprised an especially serious potential disruption to the smooth flow of narrative. Accordingly, the depth of conception and radical execution of the flashbacks in films like The Conversation and Altman's Images (l972) would not often be repeated again.

Instead, both major and minor film makers sought to situate foreign flashback innovations within typical genre settings, without raising troublesome questions about memory or subjectivity (even The Conversation's searching inquiry into the reconstruction of memory is embedded within thriller conventions). Whatever novel viewing pleasure might accrue from the new practices was instinctively weighed against the extra effort viewers might have to expend to make sense of a flashback, in connection with interpreting the entire film.

After the fertile experimentation of the Sixties and Seventies (never actually that widespread), the mainstream movie has mainly let the flashback continue doing the balance of the work in making meaning, while the viewer is passively entertained. The trend is occasionally concealed by a razzle-dazzle display of memory tropes with only the slimmest psychological resonance or aesthetic value, which require small effort to decode.

An early example of this shallowness is found in Point Blank (l967). Director John Boorman gratuitously deploys the entire armamentarium of third wave practice to confer a cachet of high art upon a vacuous account of an independent hit-man's revenge against a criminal corporation. During the hero's affair with his dead wife's sister, Resnais-like flash intercuts between the present and past sister/lover provide not a hint about his ambivalent or otherwise conflicted state of mind. The sequence is all surface play, would seem to exist only to prove that Boorman saw Last Year at Marienbad.


The assimilation of third wave flashback practice into mainstream filmmaking has cut across every genre featuring a past that cries out for discovery.22 But the latest innovations have been specially favored by movies that demand the elucidation of a conspiratorial, criminal, psychologically debilitating or otherwise traumatizing past -- or some combination thereof. No surprises here: genres of traumatic recuperation have always provided the native soil for the flashback from the first feature films inception to the elaboration of noir, content ever changing according to the tenor of the times.

The labyrinthine twists of the Cold War espionage genre proved congenial for the application of third wave memory tropes throughout the Seventies and Eighties until the collapse of the evil empire. In The Manchurian Candidate (l962), a squad of American soldiers is captured by the North Koreans, then brainwashed into believing they are attending an interminable lecture at a ladies' gardening club. Years later, the squad leader's implanted memories begin to become undone. He experiences violent dreams in which the garden society lecture is interpenetrated by instants of the Oriental enemy's evil practice upon his troops. The surreality of these flashbacks is notably reminiscent of Bunuel's work, sans the latter's mordant ideological bite.

In The Groundstar Conspiracy (l972), after a top-secret government computer installation is blown up, the apparent perpetrator stumbles into the house of a widow living nearby. Brain injured, his face severely burned, he awakens from surgery remembering neither his crime nor his identity. He takes up residence at the widow's house, overseen by a prickly CIA-type operative.

The protagonist eventually discovers he is a minor diplomat who sank into suicidal depression after the death of his wife. When the actual bomber was killed by the blast, the despairing official was enlisted by the operative's organization to sacrifice his memory and face, in aid of winkling out the conspiracy behind the bombing. The plotters in high places are caught; his memory now completely restored, the diplomat embarks upon a new life with the widow.

The narrative of The Groundstar Conspiracy is mediated by puzzling post-traumatic flashes after the fashion of Hiroshima Mon Amour. However, the film pays slim heed to the fixation of traumatic memory in a chronic grief state, or the troubled emotions that attend taking an enemy as lover, issues which Resnais' film probes in considerable, poignant depth.

Third wave flashback strategies have frequently been used in mainstream post- Holocaust and Viet Nam films to portray the kindling of the survivor's traumatic memories. These flashbacks are characteristically liminal, highly fragmented and violent, with a jarring thrust that compels one to identify with the protagonist's harrowing sense of dislocation. An initial lack of cuing is typically redressed as repression gives way to coherence, whereas in the original foreign work limited cuing can persist throughout the film.

In Holocaust narratives like The Pawnbroker (l965), the hero typically suffers catastrophic remembrance in a mundane locale which suddenly becomes booby-trapped with dreadful associations, e.g., when a packed subway train triggers off reminiscences of transportation in a cattle car.

In movies about Viet Nam veterans, post-traumatic memories are usually evoked in a context reminiscent of the POW camp rather than the battlefield. John Rambo, the former Special Forces hero of First Blood (l982), wanders into a small Oregon town after discovering that the only other survivor of his Vietnam outfit has died from Agent Orange cancer. Plunged into a state of near-catatonic helplessness, he is arrested for vagrancy by the town's hard-headed sheriff. When a brutal shower at the police station provokes unendurable memories of his torment by Viet Cong captors, Rambo explodes out of his stupor and scatters the cops like nine-pins.

Flashback-induced retaliation quickly became a commonplace of action-oriented genre films in which the vet was ambivalently represented as a rescuer of his still imprisoned fellows, an urban vigilante, or a psychotic killer. With their devotion to explosive catharsis and triumphalist revenge, these pictures could not employ flashbacks to reflect overmuch on the nature or cause of the veteran's deranged recollection.23

By comparison, flashbacks in mainstream post-Holocaust movies have been used to capture the survivor's fragmented subjectivity with considerable subtlety. Aside from a higher script quality in these films, their deeper inquiry into the vicissitudes of survivors' recollection can be ascribed once again to genre expectation. Hollywood is more likely to present Holocaust victims as passively despairing rather than actively vengeful, in narrative contexts which afford greater opportunity to think and work through issues of traumatic remembrance.

We have observed that psychologically slanted popular films of the forties and fifties offered fertile territory for adapting expressionist or surreal flashback techniques to depict the recall of traumatic events during or outside of therapy. Mainstream experimentation during a "Golden Age" of therapeutic movies reached its zenith when Hitchcock employed Salvatore Dali to design several surreal dream flashbacks for Spellbound (l945), in which the amnestic hero's troubled unconscious furnish clues about his repressed past traumas. Deemed radical at the time, Dali's work seems ludicrously heavy-handed today.

Surprisingly little assimilation of innovative flashback practice into mainstream movies concerned with psychotherapy has occurred since Spellbound's clumsy attempts to picture the condensation and displacement of the Freudian dreamwork. In recent therapeutic cinema, childhood trauma or abuse first surfaces similarly to the initial breakthrough of traumatic events in the post- Holocaust and Viet Nam vet movie, through punctuate flashbacks which conflate third wave and earlier noirish tropes -- blurred, distorted focus; canted camera angles; extreme close-ups; slow motion; ominous music; so forth.

Under the therapist's compassionate probing, memory fragments typically acquire coherence as the remembrance of abusive or traumatic experience expands. The climax is a session of summary revelation such as Ordinary People's (l98O) sequence in which the despairing adolescent hero re-experiences his brother's drowning during a typical impromptu midnight session.

In films like Ordinary People, Freud [l962], Sybil [l976] and The Prince of Tides [l99l], the limited cuing and other subversive tendencies of the third wave flashback are thoroughly modulated to ensure narrative clarity. The result is a classic Griffithian anagnorisis on the couch. The scene from The Prince of Tides in which psychotherapist/lover Dr. Carol Lowenstein helps Tom Wingo come to terms with his childhood rape unfolds with the stolid linearity of the analogous sequence in The Three Faces of Eve, during which the heroine recovers the memory of her grandmother's funeral under hypnosis.

Compared to their Hollywood counterparts, flashback construction is even more conservative in recent made-for-TV films about adults who retrieve memories of childhood molestation before and during therapy (The Voices Within [l993], Fatal Memory [l993], et al) Even less work is required to decode flashbacks here, probably because makers believed more problematic strategies would confuse a mass television audience.

For instance, in Fatal Memory the heroine's flashbacks to her childhood abuse and the murder of a friend by her father are perfunctorily distorted, including an easily interpreted transition from color to black-and-white during many of the past sequences. Flashback coherence is facilitated by the heroine's discussions immediately afterwards with her husband, therapist, siblings, or police. The ease of flashback decoding not only assists the audience in quickly making sense of the protagonist's memories, but also helps the screenplay get on with its main business: narrating the father's trial which dramatically pitted family members against each other.

As of this writing, the controversy over false or therapeutically implanted memories, raised in connection with allegations of child abuse, has not received significant attention from mainstream cinema. The possibility that memory may be falsified, exaggerated or otherwise distorted by subjective bias has chiefly been explored in art films such as Rashomon. However, given the outcome of the Ramona case and the likelihood that similar cases will be appearing before the courts, it is only a matter of time before the tremendous inherent narrative attractiveness of one Ramona scenario or another gets exploited by Hollywood, probably commencing with TV docudramas.

Whether the issue of false memory syndrome raised by Ramona will encourage greater thoughtfulness and complexity in presenting the vicissitudes of memory cinematically -- including a greater willingness to experiment with flashback parameters -- is moot. If what has gone before is any measure of what is to come, it is likely that relatively unimaginative approaches to the subject will continue to prevail, particularly on the small screen.


Cinema may well be the art most natively suited to depict the brute mechanics of remembering, to meditate on the problems and poetry of recollection. For a film is intricately woven out of the very images residing at the core of conscious and unconscious recollection, images which move on the screen as they move concretely and symbolically, both index and icon, in the waking, unconscious and dreaming mind.

Cinema has explored memory with evolving sophistication, drawing wittingly or otherwise upon a broad range of artistic, critical, and scientific discourses. Yet, like the blind men dispatched to frame the true nature of the elephant, each discourse is still likely to perceive its own particular piece of the animal, through a glass darkly, with no grand synthesis yet in sight, on screen or off.

Even postulating that an infinitely more authentic means of embodying memory on screen could ever be compounded through some unlikely alchemy of art and science, would the results be -- "commercially viable"? Scientific advances, prescient philosophizing, novel aesthetic techniques which might yet enable a more precise account of memory elsewhere, whether in academia or another performance venue, would not necessarily make for telling a rousing tale at the neighborhood multiplex. And, as we have repeatedly observed, it is compelling, profitable stories which movie makers prize above all else, to achieve which they have been ever willing to modify or sacrifice significant aspects of memory.

Progress in representing remembering can be expected as new cinematic technologies flourish -- computer graphics, virtual reality, so forth. However, given the often conflicting requirements of art, science, and commerce it is likely that totally accurate and dramatically plausible screened memory can only be approached asymptomatically.

Nevertheless, it is profoundly in the nature of the medium to keep probing our memories as the very stuff of identity. Although movies all too frequently distorts remembrance (witness the winning of the Viet Nam War which has exuberantly proceeded upon Hollywood sound stages since the Reagan era), cinema also continues to dramatize the desire to rescue a valid personal and historical past from external distortions and subjective fragmentation.

However imperfectly, cinema uniquely reflects our quest for self-definition within the archive of memory, as well as the intense fragility of recollection, the ease with which memories can be altered, warped, even exploited. One is reminded of Roy Batty, the replicant fallen angel of Blade Runner, who struggles to transcend his artificial history to discover the cruel but liberating truth of his arbitrary creation.24

One notes finally that for many viewers movies themselves have become significant constituents of remembrance. Cinema's colonization of memory, frequently cited passim by scholars and cineastes alike as a received truth, had never been interrogated at any length until Geoffrey O'Brien's passionately evocative The Phantom Empire.25 John Updike's In The Beauty of the Lilies 26 comprises a less successful fictional exploration of the same territory.


l. Maureen Turim. Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History. New York: Routledge, l989.

2. Hugo Munsterberg. The Photoplay. New York: Dover, l9l6/l97O

3. For cogent overviews of recent neurobiological theory related to the uses and construction of memory, see: Daniel L. Alkon, Memory's Voice: Deciphering the Mind-Brain Code. New York: Harper/Collins, l992; Steven Rose, The Making of Memory: From Molecules to Mind. New York: Doubleday, l992.

4. Lady Murasaki. The Tale of Genji. New York: Random House, l993.

5. John L. Fell. Film and the Narrative Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, l974.

6. Fell indicates that fantasies were favored over memories in vision scenes of the nineteenth century slide show and theater. The reasons for the preponderance remain unclear (see FN #7).

7. Thus, In D.W. Griffith's After Many Years (l9O8), an adaptation of Tennyson's Enoch Arden (Alfred Lord Tennyson. "Enoch Arden", in Tennyson's Poetry, Robert W. Hill, Jr., Editor. New York: Norton Books, l864/l972, pp. 25O-27O.), shots of the hero stranded on a desert island are interpolated with shots of his wife waiting for his return. The sequence has been labeled as one of the first, perhaps even the first flashback. However, Turim argues convincingly that it actually comprises an early example of alternate editing: rather than portraying Enoch's recollection of his wife waiting for him (presumably during former similar occasions), it shows their simultaneous plights.

Turim (ibid, and private communication) further notes that problems distinguishing between fantasy, revery, and memory in early movies may well stem from their brevity. A few hundred feet of film provided little space with which to enunciate the precise nature or temporality of intrapsychic events. Cinematically unsophisticated audiences thus had to make extremely sophisticated discriminations about mental life (a task which on the evidence did not appear to have bothered them overmuch).

Popular melodramas of the mid- to late nineteenth century theater were consistently preoccupied with the impact of the lurid past. Both narrative time and technical means existed for these plays to represent recollection, and to set memories apart from reveries, dreams, and the like. It remains a vexed question why more staged flashbacks did not clearly demarcate memories from other mental events.

8. An onscreen memory triggered by senses other than sight or sound obviously cannot be co-experienced with the peculiar empathy of a viewer who sees and hears what a character within a flashback is putatively seeing and hearing. Given the visual bias of cinema, it is hardly surprising that flashbacks cued by a character's description of an inciting taste, smell, or texture are rare. Literature is more likely to provide Proust's taste of madeleine, or the paving stone under his hero's foot.

9. For further discussion of apparatus theory, see Jean-Louis Baudry. "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus" and "The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of the Reality in Cinema", in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, Ed. Philip Rosen, New York, Columbia University Press, l986. pp. 286-3l8, as well as other relevant essays in this collection.

The effect of "presentness" can be disrupted when a viewer finds a film uninteresting for idiosyncratic reasons, or when it is so titanically awful as to bore the majority. Disruption of the presentness effect has also been undertaken as a deliberate de- familiarizing, anti-aesthetic strategy. Andy Warhol's early films such as Sleep (l963) and Empire (l964) contrive to immerse the viewer in an ever unfolding, ever unchanging present. Boredom becomes excruciating; one may leave the theater, or stay on and make tedium itself a Zen-like objection of contemplation.

10. In shot/reverse shot editing, as two characters speak, each is alternately viewed from the other's viewpoint, usually at shoulder level.

ll. Harvey R. Greenberg, with Krin Gabbard. Screen Memories, l993, New York, Columbia University Press, pp. 26. A fuller description of suture theory and theorists is found on pages 25-26.

l2. Christian Metz. The Imaginary Signifier. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, l982, p. 49.

l3. For an excellent discussion of Metz' daunting theories, see Robert Stam; Robert Borgoyne; Sandy Flitterman-Lewis. New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism -- and Beyond. New York, Routledge, l992, pp. l23-83.

l4. While the temporality of this sequence is not entirely clear, we interpret it as showing the state of world affairs preceding -- and establishing the conditions for -- Casablanca's plot.

l5. See, inter alia, Turim's discussion throughout "The Subjectivity of History in Hollywood Sound Films", ibid, pp.

lO3-42; Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, l93O-l98O. Princeton: Princeton University Press, l985; Dana Polan, Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative, and the American Cinema, l94O-5O (New York: Columbia University Press, l985).

l6. The impact of psychoanalysis upon American cinema during this period was variously a function of: the arrival of European intellectuals in Hollywood; the increasing awareness of psychotherapy in America during the postwar period, as physicians exposed to psychoanalysis in military service returned to private practice and began using psychoanalytically oriented techniques; and the large number of people in the film industry entering therapy.

l7. Turim refers to a flashback as more or less "redundant", depending upon the amount of information it supplies to help the viewer grasp its meaning.

18. Turim, ibid, p. 100.

l9. We have excluded Francois Truffaut from New Wave flashback innovators, although as an influential Cahiers du Cinema critic he greatly admired the films of Resnais, Godard and others. His enormous affection for American silent and sound cinema, combined with his ironic humanism, lead him to incorporate standard Hollywood flashback practise into his work (with considerable flair), rather than experiment extensively with temporality along more radical, anti-humanist third wave lines.

2O. Resnais's Mon Oncle d'Amerique (l98O) points to his interest in a contemporary French psychiatrist's theories about memory, trauma, and personality, idiosyncratically interpreted by the director.

2l. Rose, ibid, p. 9l.

22. For instance, in Sergio Leone's magisterial western, Once Upon A Time In The West, the enigmatic Charles Bronson hero has an initial flashback to a man later identified as the villain (Henry Fonda, cast against type), seen out of focus, striding towards the camera in portentous slow motion to a harmonica's plaintive wail (the hero carries a harmonica on a string around his neck).

At first liminal and defocalized, this sequence is repeated

frequently, until it gradually coheres until before the terminal gun duel. The cause of the hero's quest is finally disclosed as all the events of the flashback are disclosed at normal camera speed. The scene, a ruined mission; the hero, as a teenager; his older brother standing shakily upon his shoulders, a rope around his neck; Fonda, grinning evilly, walks up to the boy and shoves a harmonica in his mouth; it wails with every tortured breath; the brother, cursing, kicks himself loose, and the boy tumbles into the dust.

23. Two earlier exceptions which employ flashbacks in thoughtful accounts of a veteran's post-traumatic stress disorder are the reformist polemic Home of the Brave (l949), and the lyrical tragedy Sundays and Cybele (l962).

24. Blade Runner, and subsequently 12 Monkeys (l994) update Orwell's sinister insight that the hegemony of a totalitarian regime is most potently installed within its citizenry not by brute force, but by tampering with the fabric of collective and individual remembrance. In l984, the subversion of recollection is accomplished extra-cranially, by constant crude amendment of literature and media from the past (up to the immediate past). The corporate oligarchs and scientific overlords of Blade Runner and 12 Monkeys's trashed-out dystopias deploy more advanced technologies towards similar despotic ends -- in the former, through memory transplants; in the latter, by altering the very substance of history -- and thus of memory -- through time travel.

25. Geoffrey O'Brien. The Phantom Empire. New York: W.W. Norton, l993.

26. John Updike. In the Beauty of the Lilies. New York: A.A. Knopf, l996.

The authors would like to thank Professors Maureen Turim, Serge Gavronsky, and Norman Holland for their assistance.

Harvey Roy Greenberg, M.D. is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York, where he teaches adolescent psychiatry and medical humanities. His most recent book is Screen Memories: Hollywood Cinema on the Psychoanalytic Couch; New York: Columbia University Press, l993.

Krin Gabbard is Professor of Comparative Literature and Chairman of the Department of Comparative Literature at State University of New York -- Stony Brook, Long Island. His most recent publication is Jammin' at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, l996. Professor Gabbard, with Dr. Glen O. Gabbard, also authored Psychiatry and the Cinema; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, l987. Its second edition is forthcoming.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Harvey Greenberg and Krin Gabbard "REEL RECOLLECTION: Notes on the Cinematic Depiction of Memory". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available June 20, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: September 29, 1998, Published: January 27, 1999. Copyright © 1999 Harvey Greenberg and Krin Gabbard