This weekend I watched Johnny Guitar for the first time since I was in film school. What struck me immediately was the pacing. From the moment Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) walks into Vienna’s (Joan Crawford), I was mesmerized. Director Nicholas Ray knows how to use silence masterfully. There’s no music or dialogue, yet there’s already tension in the air, as Johnny looks around the empty place and makes eye contact with Vienna’s three employees. He’s a stranger and clearly they’re on edge.
The effect is mesmerizing, and is compounded when Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) enters a few minutes later accompanied by the Sheriff (Frank Ferguson) and about a dozen men who will later form her posse. Emma and her men are looking for the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady) and his men, who they accuse of robbing a stagecoach. But the real tension is generated between these two powerful women, their mutual hatred and their sublimated sexual attraction.
Ray understands the power of this psychological premise and lets the story unfold on its own pace. He doesn’t overload the plot. There are no unnecessary surprise twists. The audience knows the women are in the grip of powerful emotional forces which will lead to a violent climax and we watch, almost as if caught by the tide ourselves. It’s a perfect example of a director trusting the material. If you have a powerful conflict, you don’t need pyrotechnics or plot twists get in the way; if anything, you can let the story unfurl at its own pace. The effect is hypnotic and emotionally satisfying.
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.
Carol Reed’s “Odd Man Out” is an example of a movie that might not be as well-known as his other two works, “The Third Man” or “Fallen Idol,” but that deserves to be watched and studied for the unique approach that Reed takes to the genre of psychological thriller.
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.