One of my favorite experiences when I go see a movie is the one where I leave it saying to myself or anyone else who happens to be around “What the…?” This experience, while rare, is prized because it means that the filmmakers have effectively been able to reach into my head and give my brain a good rattle. This is mostly a side effect of the use of nonlinear narration.
The concept of nonlinear filmmaking can be difficult to define because it is not as simple as just using flashbacks. Flashbacks are an effective tool in telling a story on film, but it does not necessarily make it nonlinear as they can still be examples of a cohesive and chronological series of events. In order to better understand just what nonlinear narrative is, let’s dive into a few stellar examples.
While nonlinear structure is nothing new and has been around since the early days of cinema, perhaps the best known film that propelled back into popularity would be Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 opus Pulp Fiction. Separated into character-driven vignettes, the audience is presented with 3 storylines and it isn’t until much later in the film that we finally figure out which events came first. What’s great about Tarantino’s use of this method is that by the final scenes, we are aware of certain characters fates leading to a kind of tragic knowledge of consequences. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to go back in time and see what direction life would take if one minor detail was altered, this film takes that sentiment to the next level.
I will openly declare my devotion to all things Christopher Nolan. My personal beliefs don’t play into the decision to include his 2000 film Memento on this list though. It redefined the ability to mind-warp the audience with its tale of an amnesiac trying to find his wife’s killer. Confusing in an infuriatingly awesome way, we as the viewers are left to discover what led to the first scene of the film along with protagonist Leonard as it plays out in reverse chronological order. As his short-term memory loss prevents him from remembering anything outside of a 5 minute time span we are also subjected to this cruel twist of fate and it’s almost impossible to put together the puzzle pieces before he does. The film is also intercut with black and white flashbacks (or present time? Who knows?) of him discussing his case with a mysterious phone caller. Memento goes to show that a traditional “whodunit” murder mystery shouldn’t have to be traditional at all.
Last but not least we have Michel Gondry’s trippy 2004 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Simply reading a description of this film would confirm you’re in for a story that’s anything but ordinary. It centers on a new technology that allows people to have painful memories erased from their mind, zeroing in on mismatched couple, Joel and Clementine. Because most of the film takes place within the mind and memories, it’s understandably garbled and strange. But it also manages to evoke considerable humor, nostalgia, and heartbreaking emotion as it literally goes down memory lane. It flips from memory to memory, back to the present, then flashback, then back to an altered version of previous memories. It is definitely not an easily followed linear format, but when navigating the expanses of the human brain, we can hardly expect it to be.
Whether you choose to make a film chronologically, using flashbacks, or in complete disregard of cohesive time, you want your story and characters to transcend the format. I’ve always found caring about the characters and what happens to them as a sure sign the filmmakers have achieved success. Keeping that in mind, a little finessing of the predictable never hurt anybody…