[Note: When I first published this post, I thought the article in question was written by Syd Field. That was an error on my part. My bad.]
A while back I exchanged a few blog posts with Michael Hauge on the subject of flashbacks, and two and a half years later those continue to be some of my most popular articles on this site. So when I saw an article from David C. Martell on the subject, I was immediately interested.
To summarize Martell’s overlong and repetitive piece:
- a good flashback moves the story forward by escalating conflict, rather than just giving us exposition
- The Life of David Gale is a bad movie, because the first two flashbacks don’t do this.
While I agree with the premise, I completely reject the assessment of The Life of David Gale. Somewhere buried in the end of the article’s quagmire of repetition is the recognition that the David Gale‘s flashbacks are really just a framing device; that the story takes place in the past and this is a reminder that “more exciting things are to come.” This technique is used constantly in films, particularly ones that take a while to set up.
But for some reason, Sunset Boulevard‘s careful setup warrants much more respect from Mr. Martell than David Gale‘s. Most egregiously, to me, is the following comment:
“You’d think a guy with only three days to live would cut to the chase!”
Um, no David, if you think that, you completely missed the point of the movie. He wants to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit, and now you’re saying that his lack of urgency is bad thing? It’s an essential character choice!
It gets even worse a few lines later:
“The situation at the end of the third flashback is EXACTLY THE SAME as the situation at the beginning of the movie… making all of the flashbacks (and the movie itself) pointless. The flashbacks don’t change the story in any way . . . A flashback needs to CHANGE the present situation. These flashbacks just wasted our time.”
Again, no. As you so aptly pointed out later on, the flashbacks were a framing device. The flashbacks are the story. By definition, they’re not going to change it.
Sorry you didn’t like the movie. But there are better examples for flashbacks that don’t change the story or escalate the conflict at all. It’s time to move on.