*Warning: this article contains spoilers for Fight Club, Memento, Mulholland Drive and The Usual Suspects *
"Time in contemporary cinema is not a means to an end but has become an end in itself" is a quote taken from Temenuga Trifinova's 'Time and Point of View in Contemporary Cinema'. With predominant reference to David Fincher's Fight Club (1999), Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001) and with a critical analysis of the role of flashback in contemporary cinema, I will closely examine this trend. Trifanova, in his now influential article, has taken up the concept of the relationship between the action-image and the time-image, first developed by Deleuze, and has identified a dramatic shift in the history of the time-image. Contemporary filmmakers, and in particular those working in the late 1990’s and early 21st Century, have chosen to adopt a fascinating and now contagious new role for the flashback. As a result, we now have films where the action is subordinated to time and a marginalisation and complication of the action image present within the films.
From Deleuze: "It is characteristic of cinema to seize (the) past and (the) future that coexist with the present image. To film what is before and what is after...perhaps it is necessary to make what is before and after the film pass inside it in order to get out of the chain of presents." This idea, adopted and developed by Trifanova, is essential when examining contemporary films and their disjunction of time. Trifanova describes cinema of the 'time image' as a cinema of duration, whether psychological duration (emphasising the characters' inability to act) or of the duration of things (the characters' failure to act allows things and events to express themselves independently of the character's subjective interpretation of them). It is this second definition that applies to the films in this analysis. As such, the actions of the past are often recounted or recollected either through face-to-face testimony, or through the elements of voice over, flashback imagery or a dream.
When we are revealed to a subjective flashback, as usually the case, we assume as we view the recollection that the past is resolved, that the recollection is faithful (true) and that the past is not only simply available to the present narrative of the film, but also significantly linked. Each of the selected films complicates various assumptions about the relation of the past/present (time) and expresses a conscious anterior field that is often overtaken by a "waking dream", altered only through different concepts about subjectivity and time. Further, in Fight Club, Memento and Mulholland Drive each of the accounts are subject to speculation due to the obviously affected mental states of each of the protagonists. So, to examine the new trend of the flashback, we must compare these films to earlier examples that have used able-minded protagonists and utilised the flashback in a different way. Here I will talk about Rashomon (1950) and also mention the brilliant clouding of past/present judgement in Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects (1995).
The flashback is most commonly used as a technique for imparting information to the audience about a character's motivation of his/her past; however in many contemporary films, this flashback runs for almost the entire running time of the film. Trifanova writes that "time is no longer that through which people reveal themselves (time as change) but rather as a source of confusion between the real and the imaginary." The presence of the imaginary may emerge from a malfunctioning memory, from a discrepancy of POV from which the story is told or an incongruity between the levels of knowledge and consciousness of the protagonist. Memento makes visible the powerful importance of memory in separating real from imaginary events, while Fight Club demonstrates a mistaken view of reality through hallucination. The actions of Jack/Cornelius throughout the film are embedded in a fantasy world, not far removed from the real world, not far removed from the real world, but misjudging his involvement.
From Edward Branigan: "Narration can be described as the textual activity of telling and receiving through which a narrative is realised. Subjectivity then, may be conceived as a specific instance or level of narration where the telling is attributed to a character in the narrative and received by us as if we were the situation of the character." In a film like Fight Club, there exists two levels of narration integrated through the body of a single character, who may address the audience through a specific way (such as the voice-over) as well as participating in the story world where the character is oblivious to story (visuals). There can be the inclusion of superimpositions that make the total POV specify a separate reality. What else is a 'dream' or a 'memory' but a way of thinking about a reality? Often, misguided memory and presence of the "waking dream" challenge the reliability of a subjective reality. Films in which the memory plays a significant role, both as subject matter and as strategy for telling the story, such as Rashomon or The Usual Suspects, and in a much more complex sense, Memento, are problematic to the possibility of the narrative, particularly the relationship between events in time and the accurate account of these events.
The use of flashback and the management of time in contemporary films are often open to discrepancy, and different to what I will refer to as "classical" flashback films. One such example is Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), where many different versions of the same event are considered. There is not a discrepancy in the characters mental states or memory; the truth is hidden through the act of a lie. The expression of the flashback is simple and straightforward, utilising voice-over by the character and a cross-cutting between the recounting and the visual representation of the account. The film has remained revolutionary in the creation of the multi-narrative and multi-POV film. In more contemporary film we now often experience the subjective POV of one character, through an interior monologue, rather than the accounts of numerous characters. While the differing accounts in Rashomon bring us no closer to the real truth, how can we accept what we are seeing if we are only subjected to one POV, such as in Fight Club? How are we to accept Leonard's story? Teddy, a man proven throughout the film to be a manipulative liar, challenges Leonard's claim that his wife died from the rape. The audience's realisation of the true events is delayed, just as Jack's and Leonard's are.
In the debate about the action-image, we can distinguish that Rashomon does not resort to confusing the action-image, but a simple event is purposely retold differently in the character's testimony. The action does not occur outside the conscious level of the characters, and their realisation of the truth is not subject to a lapse in time. The mental state of a character is at issue when the viewer discovers that a flashback is false, and as an audience, we witness something that never occurred. Like in Rashomon, the character is motivated not by memory but by a desire to 'cover' the truth. A more contemporary example of this kind of film is Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects where the audience receives the testimony of 'one' character throughout the film. This is not a man who is mentally challenges, but an extremely clever man capable of weaving a believable cover story. Mulholland Drive is another example, as Diane Selwyn attempts to cover up her involvement in an assassination by creating an alternate reality through a 'dream', which we witness and believe to be a portrayal of true events. Plots of this type are constructed to hide a surprise or provide a twist to shock the audience and rely on misdirection, or in some cases, lying.
A narrative event perceived in the past, which must be placed in respect to other events by the viewer, is justified by character memory (the subjective flashback) and hence prone to different modes of interpretation and representation. Leonard, Tyler and Diane are all, on some level, destructive characters but presented in sympathetic terms. When we are revealed that the story we have witnessed is false or altered through the subjective POV, we see that their actions have been subordinated to a displacement in time and our perceptions are changed. American Beauty (1999), narrated by Kevin Spacey's character, Lester Burnham, features him as being already dead and therefore presenting the entire film as a flashback. Fight Club, released in the same year, utilises voice-over to recount the extended flashback sequence. In the years that have followed, voice-over has once again becomes an acceptable, even common device, with Charlie Kaufmann finally poking fun at the ironclad Hollywood 'rule' in his 2002 films Adaptation. His self-referref character, Charles Kaufman, sits in a seminar where his thoughts are heard through voice-over as Robert McKee (portrayed by Brian Cox) is shouting that only an idiot would use voice-over as a device in a movie to explain the thoughts of a character. In films such as Fight Club, Memento and American Psycho (2000), where the present calls to the past to display a single protagonist POV, this feature is a necessary step in relaying thematic concerns in relation to the present motives of the characters but also to highlight their pasts, in a way that the "new role of flashback" also does.
To simply imply the meaning of 'time is an end in itself', The Usual Suspects, Fight Club and Memento all 'begin' at the conclusion with the time-image ended - and the entire film consists of sequences of flashback that provide meaning to this point of origin. The idea of the flashback is to take you into time as a means of explaining details of the present. What is confusing, but ultimately successful about Fight Club's use of flashback is that it is from two opposing subjective (and albeit flawed) point-of-views. We expect the narrative to be told from the POV of Jack/Cornelius. However, the voice-over belongs to Tyler, at the stage at the beginning of the films where Jack knows he is Tyler. Therefore the image and the corresponding voice-over represent two different, oppositional POV. How can we possibly take the visual component of the film as being representative of the true events? But as an audience, we do. We see the events as Jack is revealed to them and we do not pick up on the clues that he ignores, including the flashes on Tyler in Jack's visions. The final twist at the end, where it is revealed that Jack and Tyler are essentially the same person (Tyler Durden) we receive the same shock that the main protagonist receives. In this sense a real space is connected to an imaginary space (the imaginary alternative being produced by a psychologically inept insomniac).
Lacan's conception of schizophrenia is "a breakdown of the signifying chain and an interlocking syntagmatic series of signifiers," which is identified in Fight Club through a state of insomnia, or the inability to feel or express one's true emotions. Jack 'meets' Tyler Durden, who draws him further and further into a violent resistance against the culture that has spawned his meaningless consumerist life. Fight Club explores a falsification of the past and the protagonist recalls characters and imagined events as distinctly lived events. Jack/Cornelius is in a state between wakefulness and sleep (link to Bergson's idea of the concept of the conscious dream) and we are recounted a false reading of the events through flashback. To provide a commentary on the temporal structuring of Fight Club, there exists anonymity in time; it is impossible to determine the time between events and how long Jack has been drifting in and out of his hallucinatory 'waking dream'. The action is not associated to any period of time, as time is ambiguously presented throughout the narrative account, making Fight Club a perfect illustration of the new wave of flashback cinema.
To further complicate Fight Club, as Nolan does in Memento, time flows in two opposite directions; visually it flows forwards, but narratively (through the voice-over) time flows backwards. Throughout Memento the character of Leonard Shelby is lodged inextricably in the past, dominated by a single memory, in a state of consciousness where he interprets all things and acts in all situations according to this single image from his past. All memories since that time are almost immediately wiped from his brain, with traces of memory left in his tattoos and photographs. Cementing its hold on the main character, the event is retold and referred to endlessly through flashback. Does it disguise from the audience another story? Focusing on the idea of "time being an end in itself" Memento begins at the end and "when the story moves forwards, it is in fact recreating events in light of a predetermined end, and whenever the story moves backwards, it takes the form of a discovery or an exploration of the past.
An examination of the time-image is extremely important because the narrative not only progresses backwards, but events from the past (forgotten by Leonard) solve the mysteries of what we have previously seen in the film. The black and white flashes of memory progress forward in an ambiguous and disassociated time period, but flow into the events that begin the colour scenes (at the end of the film). The complicated presence of the action exists as kind of a 'ghost' lost in the presence of time. Leonard is killing people throughout the film but has no recollection of these acts. Leonard traps himself in the present, which is the very contrary of living in the present. Leonard's problem may actually be that he cannot bear to remember, and therefore has to remember to forget. Leonard's past and his identity become entirely dependent upon a network of mediation, which at the conclusion, casts doubt upon the 'truth' of both Leonard's identity and his experience as he conceives of them. Trifanova observes, "his realisation at the end that he has been lying to himself takes only a few seconds, where he consciously decides to continue lying to himself" and restarts himself on a freshly destructive and denying path.
It is impossible to know how much time has transpired since the incident causing Leonard's memory loss. Leonard's memory is "an image relentlessly exploring time where people and things occupy a place in time which is incommensurable with the one they have in space" (Diran Lyons). A coherence or intelligibility of the flashback depends on a reference to the condition of memory. To develop from the condition of memory (so pronounced in Memento) elements of a textual present, past or future may be defined only with respect to some other point in the text. They are the result of the text's power to sequence. This is what makes Memento such an intriguing film because events in the past, which become increasingly important as the film progresses and tracks backwards, are not remembered by the protagonist. His subjective interpretation would be useless, so we are delivered these events from an alternate narrative source. Leonard still remains the film's main protagonist but the idea of the time-image and the narrative POV cannot function as normal, which is a key feature of Trifanova's argument.
Martha Nohimson suggests that David Lynch in Mulholland Drive pursues dreams by "making the logical temporal, spatial and psychological mechanisms of ordinary narrative defer to dream non-logic, which reflects the malleability of time, space and identity." The recollection of events in Mulholland Drive is partial, unreliable and fragmented with Diane Selwyn's character attempting the active processes of 'forgetting' and 'reconstructing.' The dream sequence that runs for almost the entirety of the film is an alternative view of the past (a cover-up of a truth) that Diane is ashamed to be involved with, hence her imagining of an alternative sequence of events. She presents herself in a new light that convinces her, or seeks to convince her, that she would not be capable of such an act. Many of the events and characters that we see in the dream part, reappear in the reality. Diane, as we are revealed at the conclusion, is on the brink of a mental breakdown and overcome by guilt, so she builds a fantasy in which she returns as Betty (the subject of her narrative) and begins a relationship with Rita (who formerly was Diane's lover, Camilla Rhodes). David Lynch's signature style of colour symbolism and portal-like structuring between the worlds of dream and reality is most apparent in Mulholland Drive in creating this effect.
Films like Mulholland Drive and Fight Club suggest that the difference between "what happened" and "what must have happened" can no longer be reduced to the neat opposition between 'subjective' and 'objective'. We believe we see the events from Rita's POV but we later find out what we saw was a mixture of Diane's memories, nightmares and dreams. In Fight Club we believe we see the scenes as Jack has perceived them but we find out that it is Tyler's version of "what must have happened". Temporal boundaries of a flashback, ie when it starts and when it concludes, can be obscurely marked. Some of the greatest films of the last decade or so cinema have boldly stepped outside the boundaries constructed by earlier films and have altered the tradition of the action image. Particularly through the use of flashback, films do not contain the linear structure that was once so dominant, but have embedded different sequences of time within the narrative. It is the films included in this analysis that have been most successful at altering the time-image and essentially made "time an end in itself."