The narrative rules behind the flashbacks

Within the movie of Citizen Kane, the story of Kane is broken into segments of stories as flashbacks. Each one contributes to the overall narrative of the story by adding their own component, which is an isolated story element. The 6 ‘flashbacks’: 1. News reel flashback, 2. Thatcher’s notebook flashback, 3. Bernstein flashback,  4. Jed Leland’s flashback, 5. Susan’s flashback, and 6.  Raymond’s flashback. Each of these dive into Kane’s background in a different way. Making a general exception for the interview portions and the intro News Reel,  the flashbacks have rules associated that make them not truly flashbacks but help the narrative aspect of the movie plot flow.

To start, the flashbacks do not follow the general rule of thumb of showing only what the person telling the story sees. There are examples within each section that show information that would not be available to the person recounting the story. A mild example of this is when Susan properly recounts the Declaration of Principles, which to her character would not seem that important. To the person interviewing, and us as the audience, we know how important it is and we can see the detail of the page that Susan might not know. Another more profound example of the flashback “breaking the rules” is during Jed Leland’s flashback, where a large section of the flashback involve the confrontation with Gettys, something Jed Leland was not present for. This seems like something unlikely that Kane would explain to Leland. How he receives the information is not important to the story, and it is critical information that we get to the story as a whole. I understand some aspects of breaking the ‘rules’ of flashbacks to get more information for the viewer, but I do not know why they would be so deliberate in having this information be given by someone who obviously should not have this info. Does anyone have a good reason for why Leland would know this or could it be something he made up? I suppose it does not have to be completely true. It could be a fabrication. If he did know the truth, then there are only 4 people he could have learned the truth from and none of them seem likely to tell.

Week 4: Reading/Viewing


Continuity Editing and Use of the Flashback in Michael Curtiz’s film Casablanca (1942)

There is a sequence in Casablanca that provides context to Rick and Ilsa’s previous behavior and later conflict in the film. It uses a flashback to demonstrate Rick’s passionate love towards Ilsa and later betrayal through a plethora of editing techniques.

It begins with a Rick reaction shot. He is shown staring off into the distance with watery eyes, reacting to the diegetic piano tune.  Then there is a dissolve into a flashback – the blurriness of the dissolve gives the viewer a sense of Rick’s intense sorrow at the upcoming memory sequence by letting the viewer see it through Rick’s foggy eyes.  A brief montage occurs after this scene which displays the development of the love Rick and Ilsa previously had with each other through dissolves.  These show fondness, but also show how little time has passed

When serious dialogue begins between the two characters, Curtiz follows the 180-degree rule to provide continuity to the scene. This makes it easy for the viewer to follow an important conversation that contains a lot of foreshadowing. The scene mentions Ilsa’s relationship with Victor Laszlo.  Another dissolve occurs and quickly the viewer is introduced to a new pace through sporadic jump cuts. These signify the chaos of war and the coming chaos of the plot. Also, the cuts introduce a shift from  nostalgic daydream to sorrowful tale.

The conversations between Ilsa and Rick continue to adhere to the 180-degree rule and include cuts to close-ups of each other’s faces demonstrating their continued love. However, the lack of dissolve gives the viewer an idea that something has changed between the two. This is when, later in the film, we learn that Ilsa became aware of Laszlo’s condition.  This leads to Ilsa betraying Rick. She leaves him stranded on the train station, and Curtiz uses an insert to deliver this news to the viewer and Rick. The insert, an extreme close up of a letter, allows the viewer to share the sorrowful experience through the perspective of Rick because it’s implied to be held in his hands. The water pouring on the letter blurs the text, and the scene cuts away with Rick leaving on a train without Ilsa. This cut is a dissolve that is nearly as blurry as the one in the beginning.  Both these events occurring represent Rick’s tears or sorrowfulness at Ilsa’s betrayal.

Masterful editing in Casablanca  really allowed Rick’s character motivation to firmly understood by the viewer.  The flashback used many editing techniques to really accentuate Rick’s intense feelings of love towards Ilsa. Also, the editing allowed the viewer to accompany Rick in a massive heartbreaking betrayal.  That later drives the plot and becomes part of Ilsa’s motivation to fake being back in love with Rick. This supports one of the themes of the film. Lovers will do anything to keep each other out of harms way, even sacrifice their own happiness.

Continuity Editing and the Flashback Technique in Casablanca

As we learned in The Film Experience, continuity editing is a system of cutting used in film to maintain continuous narrative action. The idea of this technique is to create a seamless stream of events that flows effortlessly for the viewer.

This style of editing is used consistently throughout Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca. Below, I have found a short sequence that utilizes continuity editing in our first introduction to Rick’s cafe. I think the author of this clip does a great job of explaining how the style of editing allows the viewer to take in the atmosphere of the cafe and introduces the viewer to Rick’s clientele.

One of my favorite scenes in Casablanca was the Memories of Paris montage sequence. I thought the fade in that Curtiz used was very effective in creating a flashback effect, especially with the fade being white, creating a dreamy vibe, reminiscent of better times for Rick (although the end of the montage does end in his heartbreak). Below, I have posted a clip of the montage, which begins around 1:10.

I found an article by Scott Myers that explains why this flashback sequence is so effective. Here is the link to the article:

An important point that Myers brings up in this article is the fact that flashbacks seem to be a “no-no” in the current Hollywood world. They can often be viewed as extremely cheesy by the audience. Why is this the case? Also, why is it that one of the most cherished films of all time utilizes this supposedly “cheesy” editing mechanism? Myers says that the answer lies in excellent execution, something that is not typically achieved in many of today’s films.

Myers says Casablanca’s montage works for two primary reasons. The first being its structure- there is a clear beginning, middle, and end. The second reason is that it gives us background on Rick and Ilsa’s relationship, which is central to the story in Casablanca.

I would like to know what others thought about the flashback sequence in this film. Did you think it was effective or did you think it came off as cheesy?

Dissolve to Flashback

Flashbacks have long been a common tool for filmmakers to show the audience information or events that happened before the film’s beginning. One classic example of such is in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Casablanca. Approximately in the middle of the film, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) has a flashback recounting his time with his old flame Isla (Ingrid Bergman) in Paris, after they unexpectedly meet up again in Casablanca.

The flashback begins in present-day Casablanca, with Rick getting drunk at his bar, with Sam (Dooley Wilson) playing Rick and Isla’s favorite song from their days together. Throughout the “pre-flashback”, the camera is pushing closer and closer to Rick, ending with him filling up the entire frame gazing off into the distance. Then, the scene transitions with a ripple dissolve, into a shot of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, before again dissolving into a shot of Rick and Isla driving, smiling, with the Arc behind them. The audience immediately recognizes that this is a flashback of their time together in Paris, which was only hinted at before. The flashback continues with a series of short scenes of their time in Paris, with several dissolve transitions scattered throughout to show the passage of time. The flashback ends with another ripple dissolve back to the shot of Rick sitting in his bar, with Sam finishing the song.

This sequence raised a few questions for me. Firstly, why is the ripple dissolve transition so naturally associated with a flashback? When people think of their past, their memories do not dissolve, nor do they ripple, so how do audiences naturally realize that they are watching a flashback, as opposed to the next chronological scene in the film? Also, how do dissolves show the passage of time between shots? Can a similar effect be achieved with a different transition? How different would the flashback’s effect be if instead of dissolves (rippled or not), hard cuts were used? Lastly, how is music and sound employed to emphasize flashback? In this example, the song was shown to “bring Rick back to the past”. Would the scene play differently if there was no song playing in the background?