David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Observations on film art

Archive for January 2009

Grandmaster flashback

DB here:

Elsewhere I’ve sung the glories of Turner Classic Movies. Would that the other basic-cable staple, the Fox Movie Channel, were as committed to classic cinema. It’s curious that a studio with a magnificent DVD publishing program (the Ford boxed set, the Murnau/ Borzage one) is so lackluster in its broadcast offerings. Fox was one of the greatest and most distinctive studios, and its vaults harbor many treasures, including glossy program pictures that would still be of interest to historians and fans. Where, for instance, is Caravan (1934), by the émigré director Erik Charell who made The Congress Dances (1931)? Caravan‘s elaborate long takes would be eye candy for Ophuls-besotted cinephiles.

Occasionally, though, the Fox schedulers bring out an unexpected treat, such as the sci-fi musical comedy Just Imagine (1930). Last month, the main attraction for me was The Power and the Glory (1933), directed by William K. Howard from a script by Preston Sturges.

This was an elusive rarity in my salad days. As a teenager I read that it prefigured Citizen Kane, presenting the life of a tycoon in a series of daring flashbacks. I think I first saw it in the late 1960s at a William K. Everson screening at the New School for Social Research. I caught up with it again in 1979, at the Thalia in New York City, on a double bill with The Great McGinty (1940). In my files, along with my scrawls on ring-binder paper, is James Harvey’s brisk program note, which includes lines like this: “One of Sturges’ achievements was to make movies about ordinary people that never ever make us think of the word ‘ordinary.’” I was finally able to look closely at The Power and the Glory while doing research for The Classical Hollywood Cinema (1985). The UCLA archive kindly let me see a 16mm print on a flatbed viewer.

So after a lapse of twenty-eight years I revisited P & G on the Fox channel last month. It does indeed prefigure Kane, but I now realize that for all its innovations it belongs to a rich tradition of flashback movies, and it can be correlated with a shorter-term cycle of them. Rewatching it also teased me to think about flashbacks in general, and to research them a little. You see, I am very fond of what contemporary practitioners like to call broken timelines.


A trick, an old story

On our subject for today, the indispensible book, which ought to be brought back into print or archived online, is Maureen Turim’s Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History (Routledge, 1989). We may think of the flashback as a modern technique, but Turim shows that flashbacks have been a mainstay of filmic storytelling since the 1910s.

Although the term flashback can be found as early as 1916, for some years it had multiple meanings. Some 1920s writers used it to refer to any interruption of one strand of action by another. At a horse race, after a shot of the horses, the film might “flash back” to the crowd watching. (See “Jargon of the Studio,” New York Times for 21 October 1923, X5.) In this sense, the term took on the same meaning as then-current terms like “cut-back” and “switch-back.” There was also the connotation of speed, as “flash” was commonly used to denote any short shot.

But around 1920 we also find the term being used in our modern sense. You can find it in popular fiction; one short story has its female protagonist remembering something “in a confused flashback.” F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in The Beautiful and Damned of 1922:

Anthony had a start of memory, so vivid that before his closed eyes there formed a picture, distinct as a flashback on a screen. 

At about the same time writers on theatre start to adopt the term and credit it to film. A historian of drama writes in 1921 of a play that rearranges story order:

The movies had not yet invented the flashback, whereby a thing past may be repeated as a story or a dream in the present.

Within film circles, there were signs of an exasperation with the device. One 1921 writer calls the flashback a “murderous assault on the imagination.” Turim quotes a New York Times review of His Children’s Children (1923):

For once a flash-back, as it is made in this photoplay, is interesting. It was put on to show how the older Kayne came to say his prayers.

In the same year, a critic discusses Elmer Rice’s On Trial, an influential 1911 stage play. Rice employs

a dramatic technique which up to its time was probably unique, though since then the ever recurrent “flash back” of the movies has made the trick an old story.

During the 1930s, although some critics and filmmakers employed older terms like “switch back” and “retrospect,” flashback seems to have become the standard label. It denoted any shot or scene that breaks into present-time action to show us something that happened in the past. It probably speaks to the intuitive and informal nature of filmmaking that writers and directors didn’t feel a need to name a technique that they were using confidently for two decades.

The early flashback films pretty much set the pattern for what would come later. Turim shows that all the sorts we find today have their precedents in the 1910s and 1920s. Adapting her typology a little bit, we can distinguish between character-based flashbacks and “external” ones.

A character-based flashback may be presented as purely subjective, a person’s private memory, as in Letter to Three Wives or The Pawnbroker or Across the Universe. There’s also the flashback that represents one character’s recounting of past events to another character, a sort of visual illustration of what is told. This flashback is often based on testimony in a trial or investigation (Mortal Thoughts, The Usual Suspects), but it may simply involve a conversation, as in Leave Her to Heaven, Titanic, or Slumdog Millionaire. It can also be triggered by a letter or diary, as happens with the doubly-embedded journals in The Prestige.

An alternative is to break with character altogether and present a purely objective or “external” flashback. Here an impersonal narrating authority simply takes us back in time, without justifying the new scene as character memory or as illustration of dialogue. The external flashback is uncommon in classic studio cinema (although see A Man to Remember, 1938) but was common in the 1900s and 1910s and has returned in contemporary cinema. Typically the film begins at a point of crisis before a title appears signaling the shift to an earlier period. Recent examples are Michael Clayton (“Three days earlier”), Iron Man (“36 Hours Before”), and Vantage Point (“23 Minutes Earlier”).

In current movies, flashbacks can fall between these two possibilities. Are the flashbacks in The Good Shepherd the hero’s recollections (cued by him staring blankly into space) or more objective and external, simply juxtaposing his numb, colorless life with the past disintegration of his family? The point would be relevant if we are trying to assess how much self-knowledge he gains across the present-time action of the film.


Rationales for the flashback

What purposes does a flashback fulfill? Why would any storyteller want to arrange events out of chronological order? Structurally, the answers come down to our old friends causality and parallelism.

Most obviously, a flashback can explain why one character acts as she or he does. Classic instances would be Hitchcock’s trauma films like Spellbound and Marnie. A flashback can also provide information about events that were suppressed or obscured; this is the usual function of the climactic flashback in a detective story, filling in the gaps in our knowledge of a crime.

By juxtaposing two incidents or characters, flashbacks can enhance parallels as well. The flashbacks in The Godfather Part II are positioned to highlight the contrasts between Michael Corleone’s plotting and his father’s rise to power in the community. Citizen Kane’s flashbacks are famous for juxtaposing events in the hero’s life to bring out ironies or dramatic contrasts.

Of course, flashbacks need not explain or clarify things; they can make things more complicated too. We tend to think of the “lying flashback” as a modern invention (a certain Hitchcock film has become the prototype), but Turim shows that The Goose Woman (1925) and Footloose Widows (1926) did the same thing, although not with the same surprise effect. Kristin points out to me that an even earlier example is The Confession (1920), in which a witness at a trial supplies two different versions of a killing we have already (sort of) seen.

At the limit, flashbacks can block our ability to understand characters and plot actions. This is perhaps best illustrated by Last Year at Marienbad, but the dynamic is already there in Jean Epstein’s La Glace à trois faces (“The Three-Sided Mirror,” 1927).

I argue in Poetics of Cinema that, at bottom, flashbacks are tactics fulfilling a broader strategy: breaking up the story’s chronological order. You can begin the film at a climactic moment; once the viewers are hooked, they will wait for you to move back to set things up. You can create mystery about an event that the plot has skipped over, then answer the question through a flashback. You can establish parallels between past and present that might not emerge so clearly if the events were presented in 1-2-3 order. Consequently, you can justify the switch in time by setting up characters as recalling the past, or as recounting it to others.

Having a character remember or recount the past might seem to make the flashback more “realistic,” but flashbacks usually violate plausibility. Even “subjective” flashbacks usually present objective (and reliable) information. More oddly, both memory-flashbacks and telling-flashbacks usually show things that the character didn’t, and couldn’t, witness.

I don’t suggest that recollections and recountings are merely alibis for time-juggling. They bring other appeals into the storytelling mix, such as allegiance with characters, pretexts for point-of-view experimentation, and so on. Still, the basic purpose of nonchronological plotting, I think, is to pattern information across the film’s unfolding so as to shape our state of knowledge and our emotional response in particular ways. Scene by scene and moment by moment, flashbacks play a role in pricking our curiosity about what came before, promoting suspense about what will happen next, and enhancing surprise at any moment.


A trend becomes a tradition

When The Power and the Glory was released in August 1933, it was part of a cycle of flashback films. The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), The Trial of Vivienne Ware (1932), and other courtroom films rendered testimony in flashbacks. A film might also wedge a brief or extended flashback into an ongoing plot. The most influential instance was probably Smilin’ Through (1931), which is notable for using a crane shot through a garden to link present and past.

Also well-established was the extended insert model. Here we start with a critical situation that triggers a flashback (either subjective or external), and this occupies most of the movie. Digging around, I found these instances, but I haven’t seen all of them; some don’t apparently survive.

  • Behind the Door (1919): An old sea salt recalls life in World War I and, back in the present, punishes the man responsible for his wife’s death. A ripoff of Victor Sjöström’s Terje Vigen (1917)?
  • An Old Sweetheart of Mine (1923): A husband goes through a trunk in an attic and finds a memento that reminds him of childhood sweetheart. The pair grow up and marry, facing tribulations. At the end, back in the present, she comes to the attic with their kids.
  • His Master’s Voice (1925): Rex the dog is welcomed home from the war. An extended flashback shows his heroic service for the cause, and back in the present he is rewarded with a parade.
  • Silence (1926): A condemned man explains the events that led up to the crime. Back in the present, on his way to be executed, he is saved.
  • Forever After (1926): On a World War I battlefield, a soldier recalls what brought him there.
  • The Woman on Trial (1927): A defendant recalls her past.
  • The Last Command (1928): One of the most famous flashback films of the period. An old movie extra recalls his life in service of the tsar.
  • Mammy (1930): A bum reflects on the circumstances leading him to a life on the road.
  • Such is Life (1931): A ghoulish item. A fiendish scientist confronts a young man with the corpse of the woman he loves. A flashback to their romance ensues.
  • The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931; often cablecast on TCM): A young wife bored with her husband is told the story of a neighbor woman who couldn’t settle down.
  • Two Seconds (1932): A man about to be executed remembers, in the two seconds before death, what led him here. A more mainstream reworking of a premise of Paul Fejos’s experimental Last Moment (1928), which is evidently lost.

An interesting variant of this format is Beyond Victory, a 1931 RKO release. The plot presents four soldiers on the battlefield, each one recalling his courtship of the woman he loves back home. The principle of assembling flashbacks from several characters was at this point prised free of the courtroom setting, and multiple-viewpoint flashbacks became important for investigation plots like Affairs of a Gentleman (1934), Through Different Eyes (1942), The Grand Central Murder (1942), and of course Citizen Kane, itself a sort of mystery tale.

Why this burst of flashback movies? It’s a good question for research. One place to look would be literary culture. The technique of flashback goes back to Homer, and it recurs throughout the history of both oral and written narrative. Literary modernism, however, made writers highly conscious of the possibility of scrambling the order of events. From middlebrow items like The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) to high-cultural works by Dos Passos and Faulkner, elaborate flashbacks became organizing principles for entire novels. It’s likely that Sturges, a Manhattanite of wide literary culture, was keenly aware of this trend.

It’s just as likely that he noticed similar developments in another medium. By 1931, when Katharine Seymour and J. T. W. Martin published How to Write for Radio (New York: Longmans, Green), they could devote considerable discussion to frame stories and flashbacks in radio drama (pp. 115-137). Especially interesting for Sturges’ film, radio programs were letting the voice of the announcer or the storyteller drift in and out of the action that was taking place in the past.

For whatever reasons, the technique became more common. The year 1933 saw several flashback films besides The Power and the Glory. In the didactic exploitation item Suspicious Mothers, a woman recounts her wayward path to redemption. Mr. Broadway offers an extensive embedded story using footage from another film (a common practice in the earliest days). Terror Aboard begins with the discovery of corpses on a foundering yacht, followed by an extensive flashback tracing what led up the calamity. A borderline case is the what-if movie Turn Back the Clock (1933). Ever-annoying Lee Tracy plays a small businessman run down by a car. Under anesthesia, he reimagines his life as it might have been had he married the girl he once courted. Call it a rough draft for the “hypothetical flashbacks” that Resnais was to exploit in his great La Guerre est finie.

The point of this cascade of titles is that in writing The Power and the Glory, Sturges was working with a set of conventions already in wide circulation. His inventiveness stands out in two respects: the handling of voice-over and the ordering of the flashbacks.

Now I’m about to divulge details of The Power and the Glory.


Narratage, anyone?

The film begins with what became a commonplace opening gesture of film, fiction, and nonfiction biography: the death of the protagonist. We are at the funeral of Thomas Garner, railroad tycoon. His best friend and assistant Henry slips out of the service. After visiting the company office, Henry returns home. Sitting in the parlor with him, his wife castigates Garner as a wicked man. “It’s a good thing he killed himself.” So we have the classic setup of retrospective suspense: We know the outcome but become curious about what led up to it.

Henry’s defense of Garner launches a series of flashbacks. As a boyhood friend, Henry can take us to three stages of the great man’s life: adolescence, young manhood, and late middle age. Scenes from these time periods are linked by returns to the narrating situation, when Henry’s wife will break in with further criticisms of Garner.

Sturges boasted in a letter to his father: “I have invented an entirely new method of telling stories,” explaining that it combines silent film, sound film, and “the storytelling economy and the richness of characterization of a novel.” At the time, the Paramount publicists trumpeted that the film employed a new storytelling technique labeled narratage, a wedding of “narrating” and “montage.” One publicity item called it “the greatest advance in film entertainment since talking pictures were introduced.” Hyperbole aside, what did Sturges have in mind?

There is evidence that some screenwriters were rethinking their craft after the arrival of sound filming. Exhibit A is Tamar Lane’s book, The New Technique of Screen Writing (McGraw-Hill, 1936). Lane suggests that the talking picture’s promise will be fulfilled best by a “composite” construction blending various media. From the stage comes dialogue technique and sharp compression of action building to a strong climax. From the novel comes a sense of spaciousness, the proliferation of characters, a wider time frame, and multiple lines of action. Cinema contributes its own unique qualities as well, such as the control of tempo and a “pictorial charm” (p. 28) unattainable on the stage or page.

Vague as Lane’s proposal is, it suggests a way to think about the development of Hollywood screenwriting at the time. Many critics and theorists believed that the solution to the problem of talkies was to minimize speech; this is still a common conception of how creative directors dealt with sound. But Lane acknowledged that most films would probably rely on dialogue. The task was to find engaging ways to present it. Several films had already explored some possibilities, the most notorious probably being Strange Interlude (1932). In this MGM prestige product, the soliloquys spoken by characters in O’Neill’s play are rendered as subjective voice-over. The result, unfortunately, creates a broken tempo and overstressed acting. A conversation will halt, and through changes of facial expression the performer signals that what we’re now hearing is purely mental.

The Power and the Glory responds to the challenge of making talk interesting in a more innovative way. For one thing, there is the sheer pervasiveness of the voice-over narration. We’re so used to seeing films in which the voice-over commentary weaves in and out of a scene’s dialogue that we forget that this was once a rarity. Most flashback films in the early sound era had used the voice-over to lead into a past scene, but in The Power and the Glory, Henry describes what we see as we see it.

Most daringly, in one scene Henry’s voice-over substitutes for the dialogue entirely. Young Tom and Sally are striding up a mountainside, and he’s summoning up the nerve to propose marriage. What we hear, however, is Henry at once commenting on the action and speaking the lines spoken by the couple, whose voices are never heard.

This scene, often commented upon by critics then and now, seems have exemplified what Sturges late in life recalled “narratage” to be. Describing that technique in his autobiography, he wrote: “The narrator’s, or author’s, voice spoke the dialogue while the actors only moved their lips” (p. 272).

So one of Sturges’ innovations was to use the voice-over not only to link scenes but to comment on the action as it played out. In her pioneering book Invisible Storytellers: Voice-Over Narration in American Fiction Film (Univesity of California Press, 1988), Sarah Kozloff has argued that the pervasiveness of Henry’s narration has no real precedent in Hollywood, and few successors until 1939 (pp. 31-33). (There’s one successor in Sacha Guitry’s Roman d’un tricheur.) The novelty of the device may have led Sturges and Howard toward redundancies that we find a little labored today. The transitions into the past from the frame story are given rather emphatically, with Henry’s voice-over aided by camera movements that drift away from the couple. (Compare the crisp shifts in Midnight Mary, below.) Henry’s comments during the action are sometimes accentuated by diagonal veils that drift briefly over the shot, as if assuring us that this speech isn’t coming from the scene we see.

The “montage” bit of “narratage” also invokes the idea of a series of sequences guided by the voice-over narrator. The concept might also have encompassed the most famous innovation of The Power and the Glory: Sturges’ decision to make Henry’s flashbacks non-chronological.

Even today, most flashback films adhere to 1-2-3 order in presenting their embedded, past-tense action. But Sturges noticed that in real life people often recount events out of order, backing and filling or free-associating. So he organized The Power and the Glory as a series of blocks. Each block contains several scenes from either boyhood, youth, or middle age. Within each block, the scenes proceed chronologically, but the narration skips around among the blocks.

For example, a block of boyhood scenes gives way to a set showing Garner, now in middle age, ordering around his board of directors. The next cluster of flashbacks returns to Garner’s youth and his courtship of his first wife, Sally. Then we are carried back to his middle age, with scenes showing Garner alienated from Sally and his son Tommy but also attracted to the young woman Eve. And from there we return to Garner’s early married life with Eve.

To keep things straight, Sturges respects chronology along another dimension. Not only do the scenes within each block follow normal order, but the plotlines developing across the three phases of Garner’s life are given 1-2-3 treatment. In one block of flashbacks, we see Tom and Sally courting. When we return to that stage of their lives in another block, they are happily married. The next time we see Garner as a young man, he is improving himself by attending college. The later romance with Eve develops in a similar step-by-step fashion across the blocks devoted to middle age.

A major effect of the shuffling of periods is ironic contrast. Maureen Turim points out that seeing different phases of Garner’s life side by side points up changes and disparities. In his youth, Tom watches the birth of his son with awe; in the next scene, we are reminded what a wastrel young Tommy turned out to be.

The juxtaposition of time frames also nuances character development. As Sally ages, she turns into something of a nag, quarreling with her husband and pampering Tommy. But in the next sequence we see her young, ambitiously pushing Tom to succeed and willing to undergo sacrifice by taking up his job as a railroad track-walker. The next scenes show Tom in class and in a bar while Sally walks the desolate tracks in a blizzard. She has given up a lot for her husband. In the next scene, set in middle age, Garner confesses his love to Eve but says he could never leave Sally, and the juxtaposition with Sally’s solitary track-walking suggests that he recognizes her sacrifice. And in the following scene, when Sally comes to Garner’s office, she admits that she has become disagreeable and asks if they couldn’t take a trip to reignite their love. The juxtaposition of scenes has turned a caricatural shrew into a woman who is a more complex mixture of devotion, disenchantment, and self-awareness.

Other characters aren’t given this degree of shading—Tommy is pretty much a wastrel, Eve a vamp—but another married couple deepens the central parallel. Meek Henry is dominated by his wife, but by the end she is chastened by what she learns of Garner’s real motives. Critic Andy Horton, in his helpful introduction to Sturges’ published screenplay, indicates that this couple adds a note of contentment to what is otherwise a pretty sordid melodrama of adultery and quasi-incest.

The innovative flashbacks and voice-overs are an important part of the film’s appeal, but director William K. Howard supplied some craftsmanship of his own. Particularly striking are some silhouette effects, low angles, and deep-focus compositions that underscore the parallels between Sally’s suicide and Garner’s impending death.


The original screenplay suggests that Sturges intended to push his innovations further. About halfway through, he starts to break down the time-blocks. In the script, Sally visits Garner while he’s working on a bridge. The next scene shows their son Tommy already grown and spoiled, being taken back into his father’s good graces. Then the script returns to the bridge, where Sally tells Tom she’s pregnant. The interruption of the bridge scene reminds us of how badly their child turned out.

The script jumps back to the birth of the baby. In the film the birth scene plays out in its entirety, but in the screenplay Sturges cuts it off by the scene (retained in the film) showing Garner’s marriage to Eve. The final moments of the birth scene, when Garner prays (“Thou art the power and the glory”), become in the script the very end of the film. Coming after Tom’s death at the hand of his son, this epilogue is a bitter pill, rendered all the harder to take by providing no return to Henry and his wife.

The greater fragmentation of the second part of the script, along with Garner’s death as a sort of murder-suicide and the failure to return to the narrating frame, is striking. It’s as if Sturges felt he could take more chances, counting on his viewers’ familiarity with current flashback conventions and on his film’s firmly established time-shuttling method. But if, as sources report, Sturges’ script was initially filmed exactly as written, then it seems likely that the film’s June 1933 preview provoked the changes we find in the finished product. “The first half of the picture,” he remarked in a letter, “went magnificently, but the storytelling method was a little too wild for the average audience to grasp and the latter half of the picture went wrong in several spots. We have been busy correcting this and the arguments and conferences have been endless.”

Even the compromised film proved difficult for audiences. Tamar Lane, proponent of the “composite” form suitable for the sound cinema, felt that the “retrospects” in The Power and the Glory were too numerous and protracted. Nonetheless, he praised it for its “radical and original cinema handling” (p.34). That handling rested upon tradition—a tradition that in turn encouraged innovations. Once flashbacks had become solid conventions, Sturges could risk pushing them in fresh directions.


Mary remembers

Finally, two more flashy flashback movies from 1933. Some spoilers.

Midnight Mary (MGM, William Wellman) works a twist on the courtroom template. The defendant Mary Martin is introduced jauntily reading a magazine while the prosecutor demands that the jury find her guilty of murder. This also sets up a nice little motif of shots highlighting Loretta Young’s lustrous eyes. The motif pays off with a soft-focus shot of her in jail just before the climax.


As the opening scene ends, Mary is led to a clerk’s office to wait for the verdict. There’s an automatic dose of suspense (Will she be found guilty?) but there’s also considerable curiosity: Whom has she killed? How was she caught?

These questions won’t be answered for some time. Lounging in the clerk’s office, Mary runs her eye runs across the annual reports filling his shelves. The flashbacks, which comprise most of the film, are introduced as close-ups of the volumes’ spines—1919, 1923, 1926, 1927, and so on up to the present. They serve as neatly motivated equivalents of those clichéd calendar pages that ripple through montage sequences of the 1930s.

The flashbacks are motivated as subjective; Mary doesn’t recount her life to the clerk but simply reviews it in her mind. Unlike the flashbacks in The Power and the Glory, they are chronological and without gaps. Nothing is skipped over to be revealed later. As usual, though, once Mary’s recollections have triggered the rearrangement of story order, the flashbacks are filmed as any ordinary scenes would be, including bits of action that she isn’t present to witness. The film is a good example of using the extended-flashback convention chiefly to delay the resolution of the climactic action. Told in chronological order, Mary’s tale of woe would have had much less suspense.

Transitions between present and past are areas open to innovation, and early sound filmmakers took advantage of them. In Midnight Mary, the long flashback closes with gangsters pounding on the door of Mary’s boudoir; this sound continues across the dissolve to the present, with Mary roused from her reverie by a knock on the clerk’s office door. Earlier, one transition into the past begins with Mary blowing cigarette smoke toward the bound volumes on the shelf.

Dissolve to a close-up of one book as smoke wafts over it, and then to a shot of Mary’s gangster boyfriend blowing cigarette smoke out before he sets up a robbery..


At one point the narration supplies a surprise by abruptly shifting into the present. Once Mary has become a prostitute, she is slumped over a barroom table in sorrow, while her pal Bunny consoles her. In a tight shot, Bunny (Una Merkel, always welcome), leans over and says: “Oh, what’s the diff, Mary? A girl’s gotta live, ain’t she?”

Cut directly to the present, with Mary murmuring: “Not necessarily, Bunny. The jury’s still out on that.”

Mary’s reply casts Bunny’s question about needing to live in a new light, since Mary is facing execution, and the use of the stereotyped phrase, “The jury’s still out,” now with a double meaning, reminds us of the present-tense crisis. It is a more crisp and concise link than the transitions we get in The Power and the Glory. But then, Wellman has no need for continuous voice-over, which gives the Sturges/ Howard film its more measured pace.

Filmmakers were concerned with finding storytelling techniques appropriate to the sound film, and these unpredictable links between sequences became characteristic of the new medium. Similar links had appeared in silent films, but they gained smoothness and extra dimensions of meaning when the images were blended with dialogue or music. For more on transitional hooks, go here.


Nora and narratage

The hooks between scenes are perhaps the least outrageous stretches of The Sin of Nora Moran, a Majestic release that, thanks to a gorgeous restoration and a DVD release, has rightly earned a reputation as the nuttiest B-film of the 1930s.

It is a flashback frenzy, boxes within boxes. A District Attorney tells the governor’s wife to burn the apparently incriminating love letters she’s found. In explaining why, the D. A. introduces a flashback (or is it a cutaway?) to Nora in prison. We then move into Nora’s mind and see her hard life, the low point occurring when she’s raped by a lion tamer.

Now we start shuttling between the D. A. telling us about Nora and Nora remembering, or dreaming up, traumatic events. At some points, characters in her flashbacks tell her that what she’s experiencing is not real. In one hazy sequence, her circus pal Sadie materializes in her cell to remind Nora that she killed a man. (Actually, she didn’t.) At other moments Nora’s flashbacks include moments in which she says that if she does something differently, it will change—it being the outcome of the story. At this point another character will point out that they can’t change the outcome because it has already happened . . . of course, since this is a flashback.

By the end, after the governor has had his own flashback to the end of his affair with Nora and after she appears as a floating head, things have gotten out of hand. The rules, if there are any, keep changing. And the whole farrago is propelled by furious montage sequences built out of footage scavenged from other films.

Publicity and critical response around The Sin of Nora Moran implied that the movie followed the “narratage” method. There was surely some influence. Scenes contain fairly continuous voice-over commentary, and director Phil Goldstone occasionally drops in the diagonal veil used in The Power and the Glory. But on the whole this delirious Poverty Row item falls outside the strict contours of Sturges’ experiment. Nora Moran blurs the line separating flashbacks and fantasy scenes, and it illustrates how easily we can lose track of what time zone we’re in. Watching it, I had a flashback of my own—to Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart, another compilation revealing that Hollywood conventions are only a few steps from phantasmagorias.

Unwittingly, Nora Moran’s peculiarities point forward to the flashback’s golden age, the 1940s and early 1950s. Then we got contradictory flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, flashbacks from the point of view of a corpse (Sunset Boulevard) or an Oscar statuette (Susan Slept Here). Filmmakers knew they had found a good thing, and they weren’t going to let it go.

The original screenplay of The Power and the Glory is included in Andrew Horton, ed., Three More Screenplays by Preston Sturges (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). Sturges’ reflections from the late 1950s are to be found in Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges: His Life in His Words, ed. Sandy Sturges (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990). The quotations from Sturges’ letters and from publicity about “narratage” can be found in Diane Jacobs, Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 123-129 and James Curtis, Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), 87.

My citatations of literary uses of the term come from Elliott Field, “A Philistine in Arcady,” The Black Cat 24, 10 (July 1919), 33; Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned (1922), available here, 433; Samuel A. Eliot, Jr., ed., Little Theater Classics vol. 3 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1921), 120; The Outlook (11 May 1921), 49, available here;  review of His Children’s Children, quoted in Turim p. 29; commentary on On Trial, in The New York Times (25 March, 1923), X2.

For more on the history of flashback construction, apart from Maureen Turim’s Flashbacks in Film, see Barry Salt’s Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis, 2nd ed. (London: Starword, 1992), especially 101-102, 139-141. There are discussions of the technique throughout David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), especially 42-44.

P.S. 15 November 2015: 1940s flashback technique is surveyed in my Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling.

Sitting under a palm tree made of film


Kristin here–

The Palm Springs International Film Festival has a logo calculated to appeal to those of us who travel from snowy northern climes to attend: a palm tree composed of strips of film. As each film began and a short prologue listed the sponsors, I studied that logo and felt grateful that I was missing the frigid weather that descended upon Madison during our absence. It’s a clever design, also managing to suggest movies springing forth in abundance, which was certainly true of the festival’s offerings.

Two from the Antipodes

Most New Zealand films are set in their home country, taking advantage of its magnificent landscapes and local culture. Dean Spanley (Toa Fraser) strikes me as quite different. Based on a Lord Dunsany fantasy novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley (1936), it was mostly filmed in England and is a costume piece set in the Edwardian era. Five years ago co-productions were rare things in New Zealand, but this is a Kiwi-U.K. film with an impressive international cast. There are Englishman Jeremy Northam as the narrator and protagonist, New Zealander Sam Neill in the title role, Australian Bryan Brown (perhaps most widely known as Breaker Morant) in a supporting part, and Peter O’Toole. The latter is spoken of as a possible best supporting actor Oscar nominee, though I fear that the film is too low profile for that.

[Correction, January 26. Bryan Brown appears in Breaker Morant as Lt. Peter Handcock, not in the title role.]

Dean Spanley is a feather-light but well-told tale of Fisk, a middle-aged man who pays a tense visit to his curmudgeon of a father (played by O’Toole) once a week. For something to do, Fisk takes the old man to a lecture on reincarnation, also attended incongruously by the local preacher, Dean Spanley. A friendship develops between Fisk and Spanley as it gradually comes out that Spanley seems to be the reincarnation of the father’s beloved childhood dog. The premise is made plausible by a gradual revelation of the premise, by Neill’s performance, and by some lyrical flashbacks. The whole thing is a surprising film to have come from Fraser, whose first feature, No. 2, was set in Auckland and concerned a family of Fijian descent. Yet it seems a sign of the New Zealand cinema’s health that he could take such an unexpected turn and tackle an English literary adaptation.

Australian movieThe Black Balloon (Elissa Down) is a contemporary story set in a Sydney suburb. It’s a social-problem film, dealing with a teenage boy, Thomas, torn between his love for his severely autistic brother (a truly remarkable performance by Luke Ford) and his frustration at the effect the brother’s antics have on his own ability to fit in at his new school. The film is apparently aimed primarily at a teen audience (it won the Crystal Bear for “Generation 14plus – Best Feature Film” at the Berlin Film Festival), but the almost exclusively adult audience at Palm Springs seemed entertained and touched by it. Australian stars who have made careers abroad often return to support their native industry by acting in local films, and Toni Collette is impressive as the mother. I found it a bit of a stretch that the one sympathetic, understanding fellow student Thomas finds happens to be a gorgeous girl who also seems to have no friends among their classmates. Apart from that, it’s an entertaining and informative film.

It does have one intriguing device in the pre-credits and credits scenes: several objects in each shot contain superimposed words identifying a number of the objects visible. The idea presumably is to suggest the fact that autistic people have excellent object recognition but difficulty understanding others’ emotions. I would have liked for the labeling to continue through the film, but I suspect most other viewers wouldn’t. Admittedly that would have distracted viewers from the narrative–unless we soon got used to it, which I suspect would have happened. At any rate, it’s a catchy way to introduce the story.

Another Exodus

Watching the Moroccan film Goodbye Mothers (Mohamed Ismail) was a disconcerting experience. At first it struck me as simply old-fashioned filmmaking, with multiple plotlines concerning three Jewish families living in Morocco at a time of increasing racial tensions. The stories are the stuff of melodrama, with a beautiful Jewish girl in love with a Moroccan man, a man debating whether to abandon his long-time friend and business partner to move his family to Israel, and the partner’s childless wife, who would be devastated by the departure of the family’s children, to whom she has been a second mother. In this age of short scenes, the film bases its action largely on extended shot/reverse-shot conversations, without much moving camera or many tight close-ups.

Eventually I realized that the film looks very much as if it had been made around 1960, which is the period of the story’s action.

The similarity can’t be coincidental. As with other Moroccan films I have seen, there is considerable emphasis on the music track, and here two or three scenes use the sweeping theme from Preminger’s Exodus. Indeed, the style is occasionally reminiscent of Preminger’s work of that era, as in shots that position characters precisely across the wide screen.

There’s also the sort of depth composition with a head prominent in the foreground that one associates with widescreen 1960s films by Nicholas Ray:

There’s more cutting than Preminger would typically use, but it’s an interesting pastiche that lends some subtle overtones to the film’s action. Despite a wide range of performance styles and a somewhat schematic set of plotlines, the film is an intriguing attempt to use a throwback style to convey the period when the peaceful co-existence of Jews and Muslims in Morocco was breaking down.

The quest film grows up

A few films do not necessarily a pattern make, but I’ve been struck by some echoes among the Middle Eastern films I’ve seen at this and other festivals. When the New Iranian Cinema came to international notice in the 1980s and 1990s, one narrative premise that several films shared led them to be labeled “child quest” movies. These tended to be simple searches or journeys: a boy trying to return his friend’s school notebook (Kiarostami’s Where Is My Friend’s Home?, 1987) or a girl trying to make her way through traffic to get home after school (Panahi’s The Mirror, 1997).

Gradually disasters, natural and manmade, caused the quests to become more serious. They often still involved children, but the just as often the seekers have been adults. Kiarostami’s And Life Goes On (1991) dealt with a film director’s journey into an earthquake-devastated area to find the child actor of Where Is My Friend’s Home?, who happened to live in the worst-hit area.

More recently, though, the disasters that create quests are wars in the region. My Marlon and Brando, the first feature of Turkish director Huseyin Karabey, deals with a actress in Istanbul. She has fallen in love with an Iraqi Kurd, and when the U.S. launches its invasion of Iraq, the two are cut off from each other. Increasingly frustrated and desperate, the heroine sets out to join her lover in his home in northern Iraq, even though the convoluted set of border closings forces her to go by bus via Iran.

As she meets obstacle after obstacle and finds herself isolated in small villages where she cannot speak the local language, the film risks becoming monotonous. But audience attention is carried in part by a remarkable performance by Ayca Damgaci, who must carry every scene. At intervals we see videotaped messages sent to her by her lover. His effusive professions of love are juxtaposed with clips from the film where they had acted together, and these messages lead one to wonder just how sincere he is. Might he be leading her on through her grueling trek just to find disappointment?

My Marlon and Brando reminded me of Under the Bombs, which I wrote about from the Vancouver Film Festival. (It was also shown at Palm Springs.) There a distraught Lebanese woman travels by cab into the southern area bombed by Israel in 2006, seeking her son. Both films stress the difficulties of ordinary people’s making their way through combat areas or having to detour around them.

Another variant comes in Ramchandi Pakistani (2008), made by Mehreen Jabbar, one of several female directors who have emerged in the Middle East. The mischievous Pakistani child Ramchandi wanders away from his village in Pakistan. He accidentally crosses the border into India—a border marks only by rows of painted white stones, giving the child no indication of the danger he faces. His father follows in an attempt to find him, and both are thrown into an Indian prison for years, their unregistered status making release highly unlikely. The film then alternates between the plight of the pair and their fellow prisoners and the frantic efforts of Ramchandi’s mother to find out what has happened to them and to eke out a living while hoping for their return.

The three films deal with different conflicts: U.S.-Iraqi, Israeli-Lebanese, and Indian-Pakistani. All three stress the separations of families and lovers by hostilities and the barriers they arbitrarily create for ordinary people.

A small drama far away

In contrast, the Kazak film Tulpan (Sergei Dvortsevoy) presents flat, limitless, arid plains of southern Kazakstan, where borders and conflicts seem so far away as to be irrelevant. Asa, a veteran of the Russian navy, does not go on a quest but has a pair of local goals. He seeks to marry the elusive Tulpan and to establish his own flock of sheep. As he struggles to achieve these goals, Asa remains an assistant to his brother-in-law Ondas, a tough, seasoned herdsman who keeps finding his ewes’ newborn lambs mysteriously dead.

The film is director Dvortsevoy’s first fiction feature after a career as a documentarist, and he skillfully details the lives of Ondas and his family. There are two remarkable, squirm-inducing scenes of the births of lambs, handled in long takes that seem to make trickery impossible. Despite the hardships and disappointments, there are touches of humor, as when the local vet stops by to investigate the dead-lamb problem, accompanied by a bandaged baby camel in the side-car of his motorcycle and followed by its persistent, annoyed mother. A charming film and a crowd-pleaser.

See the film, avoid the city

During the Q&A after the screening of Jerusalema that I attended, queries from the audience tended to center around how accurate its depictions of rampant crime and violence are. Director Ralph Ziman assured us that they are quite accurate, and indeed the film is loosely based on a combination of true cases. Johannesburg, he claimed, is the world’s most violent city. Whether that’s strictly true, I don’t know, but Ziman’s film is a polished, gripping depiction of one brilliant young student’s rise and fall (and rise?) as a criminal. The script, with its complex flashback structure, is tight and fast-paced. The cinematography is consistently imaginative and beautiful. (See images at top and bottom.) I can best describe it as Michael Mann shooting a gritty Hong Kong action film, but setting it among Johannesburg gangs. The Mann influence is palpable. At one point the characters watch a scene from Heat to learn how to ambush an armored car, and Mann is among those thanked in the credits.

Jerusalema was South Africa’s submission for a nomination as the Best Foreign Film for the Oscars. Not surprisingly, it didn’t make the shortlist, being an action pic rather than the art-house fare that the Academy members favor. Its language is also a disconcerting melange of the tongues and dialects spoken in South Africa, including English. At times characters switch among languages in mid-sentence. According to Ziman, the script was written in English, and then the cast helped work out how their individual characters would speak the lines.

The basic story is familiar, with a teenager, Lucky, from Soweto accepted into a university but unable to pay his fees and intending to turn to crime temporarily to raise the requisite money. Naturally he tries to quit, only to be lured back. But Lucky uses his intelligence to work out a novel way to twist the law to his advantage, commandeering crime-ridden apartment blocks that have been allowed to slip below legal standards and buying them at bargain prices. It’s the dynamic style, though, that makes this so entertaining. It was one of my favorite films of the festival. Ziman announced that it had recently been sold for American distribution, but he would not reveal the name of the company before an official announcement. I’m not sure whether it would fit better into multiplexes or art theaters. Like so many recent films it seems to fall in between. (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire are only the most recent examples that come to mind.) Its subtitles make it unlikely to find a really wide audience, but its violence might be off-putting to the art-house crowd. Wherever it ends up, it’s worth looking out for.

A final thought

During the festival, I was struck a number of times by how well-made films were that came from countries where production has previously been minimal. From South Africa, Kazakstan, Morocco, and Pakistan we see films that give the impression of having been made within a well-established industry. They adeptly use conventions familiar from festival-aimed art films or from classical Hollywood-style cinema. Clearly filmmakers in such countries have been seeing a lot of movies, even if they haven’t been making very many yet. The cliché about the cinema as an international language, almost as old as the medium itself, apparently remains as true as ever.

Note: Variety‘s wrap-up of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, including the prizes awarded, can be found here.

Three from Palm Springs

Four Nights with Anna.

DB here:

Three high points from the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Soon Kristin will offer some entries.

Four Nights with Anna is a GOFAM—a Good Old-Fashioned Art Movie. Set in a muddy Polish town, it follows a loner as he stalks a zaftig nurse. Leon watches her from around corners, studies her through her apartment window, and eventually sneaks sleeping powder into her sugar jar. This puts her out soundly enough to allow him to break into her apartment and watch her at close quarters.

My synopsis, like most retellings of this spare movie, not only spoils the experience but fundamentally changes it. Instead of laying out the premises explicitly, the film’s narration supplies them in tantalizing, equivocal doses. Skolimowski follows the great tradition of distributed exposition, so that we get context only after seeing something that can cut many ways. Early we see Leon buying an axe; soon he fishes a severed hand out of a sack and tosses it into a furnace. Is he a serial killer? No. After a while we learn that he’s the disposal officer for the hospital crematorium. Retrospectively fitting together these data provides a classic art-film pleasure, the equivalent of the curiosity-arousing clue sequences in a mainstream mystery.

The same goes for the ambiguous inserts that suggest a police interrogation. Only halfway through the film do these snippets become lengthy and explicit enough for us to place them in the story’s time sequence. Just as the Nouveau Roman of Robbe-Grillet owed a great deal to the classic detective story, the European art cinema tradition has drawn heavily on the investigation plot, from Les mauvais rencontres (1955) to The Spider’s Stratagem (1970). The premises of the thriller surface as well. The central conceit of Four Nights and of Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron, of a stranger who quietly and obsessively prowls around homes, was also explored in Patricia Highsmith’s 1962 novel Cry of the Owl, but not with Skolimowski’s playful indeterminacy about who and what and why.

The trick, then, is in the telling. By accreting details that cohere gradually, Skolimowski’s film not only engages curiosity and suspense, but also allows room for wayward, if dark humor. Leon’s quaking abasement leads to embarrassment, pratfalls, and comically strenuous efforts to melt into his surroundings. Objects take on a precise life, as Leon crushes his grandmother’s sleeping pills to powder and uses plastic silverware to fish a fallen ring from cracks in the floor. We never see Anna apart from Leon; she’s either in the same locale or glimpsed in precisely composed shots of her at her window. The exact, constrained handling of optical point-of-view owes a lot to Rear Window, but Jimmy Stewart never went so far as to install a new window to enhance his peeping.

In its diffuse exposition, its teasing inserts, and its gradually unfolding implications, a GOFAM also asks us to appreciate unresolved uncertainties. During the Q & A, Skolimowski remarked that he liked “to play with a little ambiguity . . . to leave it for the audience to interpret.” The locale? Indefinite, he says. The time period? Deliberately left vague. The mysterious final shot? “A third ambiguity.” For the man who made the kinetic Identification Marks: None (1964), Walkover (1965), Barrier (1966), and Le Départ (1967), film is something of a sporting proposition. It’s good to see him back in the game.

By contrast, The Shaft by Zhang Chi is a NFAAM, a Newfangled Asian Art Movie. That means minimalism. Single-shot scenes are captured by a distant, stable camera. Characters mutely go about their business, or just stand there. Pivotal plot moments take place outside the frame or between two static scenes. Any dramatic climaxes and grand passions are muffled or simply sufffocated.

The proximate sources of this Asian minimalism are probably the late 1980s films of Hou Hsiao-hsien. A European predecessor of the style, I think, is Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher (1969), but its most famous early instance would be Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975).

Such a quiet style poses a problem: How to show plot changes and character development without lengthy dialogue? A common solution is to repeat setups in ways that diagram changes in character relationships. Have a young man pedal his bike up to his girlfriend and offer her a ride. Later as their relationship cools, show him in a similar framing riding callously past her.

Or show the couple wordlessly visiting a lake, but after they break up, show the girl standing there alone.

Tableaus can be used to parallel couples. Each pair meet near the village railroad trestle, but the compositions distinguish the couples.

Likewise, the shots showing the central family eating in front of the TV can be recalled through variation. The number of people at the table and their identities can change over the course of time.

The Shaft puts such conventions to solid use. In a rural Chinese town, young people face the choice of going to work in the mine or moving to Beijing. The film is built out of three stories, centering on a daughter, then her brother, and finally their father. At the end, the eventual revelation of what happened to the family’s mother throws the preceding love stories into sharper relief.

Once the innovators have mastered a style through dint of effort, others can glide down the learning curve and pick it up quickly. But then they should try to add something new. Today the rudiments of the minimalist style are comparatively easy to acquire. To go beyond those, you need something else—a more elaborate play with pictorial variations, or more ingenious staging (the Hou solution), or a gift for adjusting to the contours of landscape (the Jia Zhang-ke alternative). The Shaft is well-carpentered. It is measured and poignant (especially in its final story), and it concludes with a stunning trio of shots. Its very modesty, though, suggests the conventions of NFAAM need some renewal, even some shaking up.

Shaking things up is what Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Tokyo Sonata is all about. A salaryman is downsized, but he can’t bear to tell his family. He pretends to go off to work while he actually tries to find a new job, any job. In the meantime, his sons display more ambition and courage in their limited worlds, than he does, while the mother tries to defuse the emerging tensions.

For an hour or so, this story is engrossing on naturalistic terms, alternating comedy and pathos. It might continue in a vein of gentle realism characteristic of that perennial Japanese genre, the shomin-geki, ending with everyone’s stoic reconciliation to the vagaries of life. But the director of Cure and Charisma will go along with this formula only up to a point. Why not break the form? You can argue that the simple purity of The Shaft plays too cautiously; once you’ve figured out how things will probably unfold, who cares to see the rest? A smooth cup is lovely, but a cracked one possesses its own enigmatic appeal.

So Kurosawa careens his homely tale into grotesque territory. The tone and plot logic that he’s cultivated so carefully are fractured by some violent emotions, implausible coincidences, and unexpected twists. Granted, his technique remains unruffled.Kurosawa follows Japanese traditions of enclosing faces in apertures and arranging people in gridwork patterns that still leave room for natural movement. The beginning of the story’s wild detour is discreetly signaled by a variant of the film’s first shot. But the composure of the handling makes the challenge to our expectations all the more disruptive.

I shouldn’t say much more, except to note that I meant the word fracture to suggest that the film mends its bones eventually. The final moments are taken up with a delicate performance of Debussy’s Clair de lune. Neither GOFAM nor NFAAM, risk-taking and in the end quite moving, Tokyo Sonata attests to the unpredictable innovativeness of Japanese filmmaking.

I may add other thoughts to Kristin’s upcoming dispatch, but for now I just note that Palm Springs is the only festival I know that uses Béla Tarr soundtrack cuts for pre-show music.

Tokyo Sonata.

Palmy days

DB here:

Kristin and I were invited to the Palm Springs International Film Festival for its twentieth-anniversary outing. We didn’t need much persuasion. Single-digit temperatures in Madison provided some motivation, but the first-rate program was the decisive factor.  We’re grateful to our old friend (and former student) Alissa Simon, one of the PSIFF’s programmers, for helping arrange our visit, and to Emily Davis and Steve Wilson for being maximally welcoming.

We’ve already seen about a dozen films, and once we get some time in the next few days we’ll be writing up our responses to such extraordinary movies as Tokyo Sonata (Kurosawa Kiyoshi), The Shaft (Zhang Chi), Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy), Four Nights with Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski), and several more. For now, let this snapshot of the lively Skolimowski stand in for the dispatch we will be posting later this week. His return, after a hiatus of fifteen years, is most welcome.

David Bordwell
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