Sunday, February 16, 2014

AMERICAN HUSTLE — Digging a Way into the Past with Flashback

By Kimberly Johnson

 Last Saturday, I forked over $5.50 to see People magazine’s 2011 Sexiest Man Alive and an Oscar-winner run con games. I definitely was not conned out of my money.

Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale brought the 70s to life. It was bell bottoms and platform shoes. It was a comb-over and a curly perm. It was a well groomed seminar in applying the technique of flashback. I give an A + to director David O. Russell and screen writer Eric Warren Singer. The film opens with Bale fiddling his stringy hair in order to conceal his bald spot. He’s preening in the mirror, styling’ and profilin’, ready to meet the mark (a New Jersey mayor) with partners in crime Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper. From there, the flashback is laid down like shag carpet.

I like flashback. Uber-director Martin Scorsese does a respectable job of it, especially in Goodfellas. Personally, I have not attempted to use it in my writing so I think this is a good spot to explore it. Screenwriting instructor Syd Field states that “Flashbacks are a tool, a device, where the screenwriter provides the reader and audience with visual information that he or she cannot incorporate into the screenplay any other way. The purpose of the flashback is simple: it is a technique that bridges time, place and action to reveal information about the character, or move the story forward.”

Well, that’s what David Russell did in American Hustle. I think he wanted me to feel sorry for Bale’s character (Irving Rosenfeld), so he jumped back in to the past to illustrate what a schmuck he was and soared forward to illustrate how Irving was going to right some wrongs/do the right thing with this last big score with the FBI.  This movie inspired me to use flashback in some upcoming writings. Here are three items I liked when researching the topic:

1. Use flashback as a significant event that gives clues about the character.
2. Make sure the transition process is simple and smooth. The audience should be able to follow the action from the present, to the past and back to the present.
3. Create a physical type of transition. For example: a character sees a picture, smells a scent, or hears a specific sound which causes him to reminisce about a bygone time.
4. Tackle the age old problem of using flashback as a way to plug in a plot dilemma. According to, establish the backstory early and re-establish it before you incorporate the flashback scene.
 Like a shag carpet, Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale brought the '70s to life. But it was flashback that shined like a disco ball to make the film quite memorable.

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