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by Jason Mittell

p. 190-191:

One option is using diegetic flashbacks to serve as embedded recaps for viewers in the moment of the surprise itself. “Daybreak,” the series finale of Battlestar Galactica, offers a good (if convoluted) example. Five characters (including Tory and Galen) agree to share in a technological process that will share their memories with each other to facilitate a peace agreement between the warring Cylons and humans. Prior to the procedure, Tory mentions that they may discover shameful things in their pasts, a protest that is quickly brushed aside. During the procedure, we glimpse memories in the form of flashbacks of some key moments from each character. Among these events, we see Tory confronting Galen’s late wife, Cally; Galen starts to focus on these memories, and we witness a replay of Tory’s murder of Cally from “The Ties That Bind,” which had originally aired 11 months before “Daybreak”; this revelation triggers Galen to break from the procedure and strangle Tory. Series producer Ron Moore stated in his commentary track that the writers intentionally “buried” the storyline of Cally’s murder, waiting for this climactic moment to pay off Galen’s revenge with high narrative stakes in the finale. Notably, the recap for “Daybreak” contains no reference to Cally or her murder, allowing the viewer to experience the rekindled memory along with Galen’s realization. While a dedicated viewer certainly could have recalled that Tory had murdered Cally, it was far from active memory after 11 months and many subsequent plot machinations—viewers watching the series on DVD would have a more compressed experience and thus would be more likely to have the lingering plot point fresh within their minds. But for viewers watching the original airings whom I spoke with, the revelation prompted a gradual surprising realization that Galen would witness his wife’s murder. Had the recap reminded us about the murder, we would have likely anticipated the result of the memory meld earlier, defusing a moment of high drama. The effect of such revelations might be called surprise memory, or the moment of being surprised by story information that you already know but do not have within working memory.

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Flash back in Forrest Gump

by Michael Frierson

One traditional kind of narrative flashback in film is recounted enactment: a character in the film recounts something in his or her past and we see that event enacted on screen. In Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994) Forrest (Tom Hanks) strikes up a philosophical conversation with a nurse on a park bench about her shoes. As the camera pushes in, Forrest recalls “I bet if I think about it real hard I could remember my first pair of shoes.” He closes his eyes, thinking hard, and continues, “Moma said they would take me anywhere,” cut to Forrest as a young boy, striking the same facial expression. As the camera pulls back, the adult Forrest’s voice continues, “She said they were my magic shoes.” The camera reveals Forrest in a doctor’s office. As Forrest opens his eyes in astonishment, the camera continues back to reveal his first pair of leg braces.

Flash Back: Recounted Enactment in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

by Michael Frierson

A particular hybrid form of the flash back in film is the recounted enactment, where a character begins telling an earlier narrative event, and the film cuts back to show that event. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, 1962) contains a vivid example of the conventional Hollywood style of this form. Here, the flashback is told as a recounted enactment and is fully marked by a number of formal elements. At a convention to establish statehood for the territory, Stoddard is under consideration as the delegate to Washington, but storms out after he decides he’s unfit, given that his current fame is based mostly on the fact that he killed a well known bad guy. Doniphon takes Stoddard aside and tells him, “You talk too much. Think too much. Besides, you didn’t kill Liberty Valence. . . Think back Pilgrim [Stoddard]. Valance came out of the saloon. You were walking toward him when he fired his first shot. Remember?” The camera pushes in on these last two lines, and when a plume of smoke exhaled from Doniphon’s cigarette fills the screen, the scene defocuses (a post production optical printer effect), while swirling strings fill the soundtrack and the film dips to black. The film flashes back, cutting in black, from black screen to the black image of Doniphan’s back filling the camera frame. As he steps forward, the same action from the earlier scene of Stoddard confronting Liberty Valence in the street is now replaying, but from Doniphon’s point of view standing in a darkened alley to the side of the confrontation. Doniphon’s ranch hand Pompey (Woody Strode) tosses him a rifle as Valance taunts Stoddard and prepares to kill him. “This time, right between the eyes,” says Valance, cocking his pistol, and as Stoddard fires wildly with his pistol, Doniphon fires his rifle from the alley, killing Valance, who stumbles out into the street. The flashback formally “bookends” the opening as Doniphon walks into camera, causing the screen to return to black.

Flash back: The original scene in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that later replays as a recounted enactment

by Michael Frierson

John Ford presents the shooting of Liberty Valance twice in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard (James Stewart), a lawyer raised and educated in the East, comes to Shinbone in the Western territories to set up a law office. He competes with the rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) for the attention of Hallie (Vera Miles), and ultimately brings law and order to the town by killing a local thug who terrorizes the town -- Liberty Valence (Lee Marvin) -- or so he thinks. In the first presentation of the scene, we see the action from Stoddard's point of view, which suggests he has killed Valance, a remarkable feat given Valance's skill with a gun. It's only when Doniphon (John Wayne) takes Stoddard aside later and tells him that he didn't kill Valance that we see the "true" presentation of killing, where Doniphon shoots him from the alley nearby. This version of the scene becomes the basis for comparison to the enactment that comes in flashback later as Doniphon recounts the event, and Ford cuts to show it from the his point of view.

Other media by this contributor

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA's final episode features an example of surprise memory, where previously seen scenes shock viewers via flashback

Being surprised by something you already know but may have forgotten is a distinct pleasure of serial storytelling.

from Battlestar Galactica season 4 (2009)
Creator: Sci-Fi
Posted by Jason Mittell