Time in the classical film

Our examination of exposition has shown that the narrational aspect of plot manipulates story time in specific ways. More generally, classical narration employs characteristic strategies for manipulating story order and story duration. These strategies activate the spectator in ways congruent with the overall aims of the classical cinema. We shall also have to pay some attention to how narration uses one device that is commonly associated with the Hollywood style's handling of time: crosscutting.

After dramas supposedly without endings, here is a drama which would be without exposition or opening, and which would end clearly. Events would not follow one another and especially would not correspond exactly. The fragments of many pasts come to bury themselves in a single now. The future mixed among memories. This chronology is that of the human mind.

Jean Epstein, writing in 1927, thus describes his film La Glace à trois faces. Hollywood cinema, however, refuses the radical play with chronology that Epstein proposes; the classical film normally shows story events in a 1-2-3 order. Unlike Epstein, the classical filmmaker needs an opening, a threshold-that concentrated, preliminary exposition that plunges us in medias res. Events unfold successively from that. Advance notice of the future is especially forbidden, since a ftashforward would make the narration's omniscience and suppressiveness overt (see Chapter 30 on alternative cinemas' use of the flashforward). The only permissible manipulation of story order is the flashback.

Flashbacks are rarer in the classical Hollywood film than we normally think. Throughout the period 1917-60, screenwriters' manuals usually recommended not using them; as one manual put it, 'Protracted or frequent flashbacks tend to slow the dramatic progression'-a remark that reflects Hollywood's general reluctance to exploit curiosity about past story events. Of the one hundred UnS films, only twenty use any flashbacks at all, and fifteen of those occur in silent films. Most of these are brief, expository flashbacks filling in information about a character's background; this device was obviously replaced by expository dialogue in the sound cinema. In the early years of .sound, when plays about trials were common film sources, flashbacks offered a way to 'open up' stagy trial scenes (e.g., The Bellamy Trial, Through Different Eyes, The Trial of Mary Dugan, Madame X, all 1929). Another vogue for flashbacks ran from the late 1930s into the 1950s. Between 1939 and 1953, four UnS films begin with a frame story and flash back to recount the bulk of the main action before returning to the frame. Yet those four flashback films still comprise less than 10 per cent of the UnS films of the period. What probably makes the period seem dominated by flashbacks is not the numerical frequency of the device but the intricate ways it was used: contradictory flashbacks in Crossfire (1947), parallel flashbacks in Letter to Three Wives (1948), open-ended flashbacks in How Green Was My Valley (1941) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks in Passage to Marseille (1944) and The Locket (1946), and a flashback narrated by a dead man in Sunset Boulevard (1950).

It is possible, of course, to present a shift in story order simply as such, with the film's narration overtly intervening to reveal the past.

In The Ghost of Rosie Taylor (1918), an expository inter-title announces that it will explain how the situation became what it is; the title motivates the flashback. The Killing (1956) uses voice-over, documentary-sty le narration to motivate 'realistically' its jumps back in time. The rarity of these overt intrusions shows that classical narration almost always motivates flashbacks by means of character memory. Several cues cooperate here: images of the character thinking, the character's voice heard 'over' the images, optical effects (dissolve, blurring focus), music, and specific references to the time period we are about to enter. If we see flashbacks as motivated by subjectivity, then the extraordinary fashion for temporal manipulations in the 1940s can be explained by the changing conception of psychological causality in the period.

Classical flashbacks are motivated by character memory, but they do not function primarily to reveal character traits. Nor were Hollywood practitioners particularly interested in using the flashback to restrict point-of-view; one screenwriters' manual suggests that 'unmotivated jumping of time is likely to rattle the audience, thereby breaking their illusion that they participate in the lives of the characters.' Even the contradictory flashbacks in Through Different Eyes or Crossfire serve not to reveal the teller's personality so much as they operate, within the conventions of the mystery film, as visual representations of lies. Jean Epstein's aim in La Glace à trois faces-to reflect the mixed temporality of consciousness, fragments of the past in a single now-is far removed from Hollywood's use of flashbacks as rhetorical 'dispositions' of the narrative for the sake of suspense or surprise. Nor need the classical flashback respect the literary conventions of firstperson narration. Extended flashback sequences usually include material that the remembering character could not have witnessed or known. Character memory is simply a convenient immediate motivation for a shift in chronology; once the shift is accomplished, there are no constant cues to remind us that we are supposedly in someone's mind. In flashbacks, then, the narrating character executes the same fading movement that the narrator of the entire film does: overt and self-conscious at first, then covert and intermittently apparent. Beginning with one narrator and ending with another (e.g., I Walked With a Zombie), or compelling a character to 'remember' things she never knew or will know (e.g., Ten North Frederick [1958]), or creating a deceased narrator (e.g., Sunset Boulevard)-all these tactics show that subjectivity is an arbitrary pretext for flashbacks.

Classical manipulations of story order imply specific activities for the spectator. These involve what psychologists call 'temporal integration, ' the process of fusing the perception of the present, the memory of the past, and expectations about the future. E.H. Gombrich points out that temporal integration depends upon the search for meaning, the drive to make coherent sense of the material represented. The film which challenges this coherence, a film like Not Reconciled (1964), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), or India Song (1975), must make temporal integration difficult to achieve. In the classical film, however, character causality provides the basis for temporal coherence. The manipulations of story order in Not Reconciled or Marienbad are puzzling partly because we cannot determine any relevant character identities, traits, or actions which could motivate the breaks in chronology. On the other hand, one reason that classical flashbacks do not adhere to a character's viewpoint is that they must never distract from the ongoing causal chain. The causes and effects may be presented out of story order, but our search for their connections must be rewarded.

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