Studies in Flashback: “Ordinary People”

Part 5 of a five-part series on movies where flashbacks work.

I set this discussion into motion here and here. To wit: Hollywood conventional wisdom is that voice-over narration and flashbacks are a no-no, yet some of the greatest movies ever produced use these narrative devices including Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, and Rashomon.

My conclusion: Voice-over narration and flashbacks are not inherently bad, rather they are tainted by how poorly they get executed by inexperienced writers.

Goal: Find five movies in which each is used well, then analyze those movies to come up with — hopefully — guidelines on how best to handle this pair of narrative devices.

Today the fifth of five movies that use flashbacks: Ordinary People, screenplay by Alvin Sargent, novel by Judith Guest.

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“Ordinary People”

Here is a summary of the movie:

That “guilt-ridden younger son” is Conrad [Timothy Hutton] and he suffers from severe survivor’s guilt from his brother’s drowning. In this dramatic scene with his therapist Dr. Berger [Judd Hirsch], Conrad has a breakthrough about what transpired that fateful day on the lake:

This is a case of show it, don’t say it, as the catharsis Conrad experiences is that much more powerful, both to him and to us, by ‘seeing’ what he remembers of his brother’s drowning.

It’s reminiscent of the catharsis Clarice Starling experiences in The Silence of the Lambs where she recalls the frightful memories of the spring slaughter of the lambs on her uncle’s Montana farm. Interestingly they chose not to shoot that flashback. In this interview, screenwriter Ted Tally explains why:

Part 1: Casablanca

Part 2: The Social Network

Part 3: (500) Days of Summer

Part 4: Once Upon a Time in the West

That ends our two-week series. Bottom line: Whenever you think about using either voice-over narration or flashbacks, you stand at a fork-in-the-road. You can use them. Sometimes they work really well. But as I’ve said all along, you have to be sure they are the best and only way to tell that story.

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