I recently read that in China people have become so accustomed to seeing closed-circuit cameras everywhere that they get nervous in areas without them. Think about that. The natural world has no ccTV. When it first came out, it made a lot of people nervous they were being surveilled or followed. For most of human existence, people lived without any cameras or recording devices and humankind survived. And now, ccTV cameras are so ubiquitous people are afraid or uncomfortable without them. It’s a powerful lesson about fear and comfort.
That kind of fear is an illusion. There is no real danger, just a lack of comfort or a new experience. But it can feel real and scary! Very often, we’re terrified of something just because we’ve become comfortable to a certain reality — but if you change that reality, you can still survive. Sometimes you can even thrive. And once you get to the other side, the place without ccTV, where you can truly be alone without anyone watching you, you can actually feel liberated. You’ve stepped into a new world and that’s exhilarating.
Continuing my exploration of whether or not flashbacks are a necessary device in modern screenwriting, today I’m going to write about a movie whose entire plot hinges on events that happened before the action starts — and the filmmaker doesn’t rely on flashbacks to convey their significance. The movie is Asghar Farhadi’s The Past.
The story centers around Marie (Bérénice Bejo) , her second husband, Ahmad (Ali Mossafa), and her new boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim). Ahmad abandoned Marie and her two daughters five years earlier to return to Iran. He’s come back to Paris to grant Marie the divorce she requested so that she can marry Samir, who has a young son himself. But it turns out Samir is already married — to a woman languishing in a coma. Marie’s relationship history — or baggage — is constantly impinging on her current plans with Samir. When it comes to love, you can never completely free yourself from the past, (particularly if you have children.) And, like I said earlier, director Farhadi conveys this complicated history without a single flashback. In order to achieve that, Farhadi relies on a different narrative technique: by using Ahmad, in the role of the newcomer.
This works particularly well because Farhadi does not just use Ahmad as a device; he is an integral part of the love triangle. Also, Ahmad has been away for a long enough period of time that his complete ignorance of the current facts makes sense; his questions don’t jolt the audience out of the story or smack us as unrealistic. Yet Ahmad has not been away so long that the children have completely forgotten him. He is also a natural peacemaker, so it makes sense when Marie asks him to draw out her teenage daughter, who resents the new fiancé.
Farhadi is an elegant storyteller, so Ahmad’s inquiries also drive the plot. Maybe this is one reason Farhadi’s movies often feel like thrillers: there’s always a mystery at the heart of the story. In The Past, Ahmad delves into the reason Samir’s wife attempted suicide and ended up in a coma. Also, much like in film noir, the plot is further complicated by the fact that all the characters have their own motives for being less than honest about their own complicity in that suicide attempt — including Ahmad himself and the kids. Farhadi’s elegant use of character dynamics gives us a deeper grasp of human relationships, particularly in connection to truth and culpability.
When it comes to the elusive nature of ever knowing what truly happened, Farhadi has learned from Rashomon. Except he undergoes that exploration without any flashbacks. In a way, this involves the audience more because it feels like we’re finding stuff out along with Ahmad.
Flashbacks are a controversial device in movies nowadays. I’ve heard a lot of screenwriters be adamantly opposed to them. “They’re a lazy way to relay information,” those against them argue. We’ve all seen movies in which we’re jolted out of a story by a flashback. My take is that they’re useful cinematic devices and not just for giving backstory.
Every new year comes with resolutions, one of the most common being to lose weight or, at the very least, to finally get fit. Sometimes we want to lose weight because of a health scare, but a lot of times we just want to look better. Women are bombarded every day with images of perfection, beauty, youth–ideals that can wreak havoc on our self-esteem. Others rebel against these ideals and refuse to conform to society’s impossible standards by refusing to work out or lose weight, sometimes even if it affects their health. Either stance is problematic because they’re both reactions to external opinions. This new year, I want to suggest an alternative view, one that’s entirely self-driven. Hear me out.
Childhood has a lot in common with great cinema in that when you’re small, everything is new, lending everything intensity, fantasy, and vividness. A truly great movie is not just a story, it’s an experience. You get to grab Cary Grant’s hand as he saves you from going over the cliff and then you kiss him. You jump into Dick Van Dyke’s watercolors and cavort with Mary Poppins and a couple of penguins. And yet onscreen kids are often phony, unbearably grown-up and off-putting, and few movies truly capture what it’s like to be a kid. Below are some exceptions.