Cinema and Media Studies Memory and the Flashback in Cinema
Russell Kilbourn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0182


In the second decade of the 21st century it is possible to say that memory has superseded gender, race, social class, or nation as the focus of the current generation’s preoccupation with identity, whether individual or collective. Over the past few decades, “memory studies” has emerged as one of the only truly interdisciplinary academic fields. Memory is an object of study for the applied and the social sciences, as well as the humanities. In each case, however, it means something different, depending on whether the context is neurology or psychology, sociology or history, literature or film. While the scholarship on memory in general is already enormous, and steadily growing, work on memory in relation to film is still in its nascent stages. Even though memory has been construed in visual-spatial terms since the classical “art of memory,” which persisted into the Renaissance, the coming-to-dominance of cinema and moving images, beginning in the late 19th century, means that ways of representing and understanding memory are now determined in largely visual terms. At the same time, cinema can be seen to extend and amplify the two dominant metaphors for memory since Plato: on the one hand as a form of writing, and on the other as storage space or archive. The consequences of these tendencies in the cinematic representation of the past, as film gives way to a post-cinematic, digital model have yet to be measured. The repertoire of techniques that have developed historically for cinematic narration include not only the manipulation of space through montage, but also the manipulation of time, or story chronology, through such devices as the flashback. Therefore, in this context, “memory in cinema” means: (a) the representation of individual memory processes in specific films, with an emphasis on the flashback as narrative structure; (b) the thematization of memory (or memory as “history”) in specific films, specific genres or modes, or in the medium itself; and (c) various theoretical approaches to these phenomena, conditioned by historical and cultural context. For reasons of space, “memory in cinema” here does not include texts that deal with “history” per se, although the intersection of memory studies and the critical study of history in the context of media, and especially film theory, is a rich field.

General Overviews

While there are many articles and books offering overviews of the field of memory studies, very few introductory overviews have thus far been written on the relation of memory and film. Of the following, only Radstone 2010 was written expressly as an introduction to this area. Among the others (Erll 2011, Erll and Wodianka 2008, Grainge 2003, Greenberg and Gabbard 1999, Sinha and McSweeney 2009), only Greenberg and Gabbard 1999 is designed as a freestanding article covering the history of the representation of memory in film from a psychological perspective. With the exception of Sinha and McSweeney 2009, which is a collection devoted to the millennial memory film, the other entries are chapters or sections of monographs or collections on broader themes.

  • Erll, Astrid. “Media and Memory.” In Memory in Culture. By Astrid Erll and translated by Sara B. Young, 113–143. New York and Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

    See especially the section “Visual Media: Photography, Film and Memory” (pp. 134–143), which focuses mainly on popular film in the context of commercial visual media, particularly TV. Ties discussion of film as modality of cultural memory to media theory more broadly, putting it into the context of “remediation,” premediation, and intermediality. Erll insightfully reads remediation, in particular, as a theory of memory (pp. 139–143).

  • Erll, Astrid, and Stephanie Wodianka. “Einleitung: Phänomenologie eine Methodologie des, Erinnerungsfilms.” In Film und Kulturelle Erinnerung: Plurimediale Konstellationen. Edited by Astrid Erll and Stephanie Wodianka, 1–20. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110209310.1

    First application of the term “memory film” (Erinerrungsfilm) to popular commercial films that take memory as a central theme or that reflect in their form upon the processes of memory (and/or forgetting), drawing attention to the status and function of memory in the culture more generally (see Erll 2011, p. 137). See Kilbourn 2010 for an approach focusing on memory-reflexive “art films” over more commercial examples.

  • Grainge, Paul. “Introduction: Memory and Popular Film.” In Memory and Popular Film. Edited by Paul Grainge, 1–20. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2003.

    Addresses the erosion of any clear distinction between “memory” and “history,” stressing the need to retain such a distinction, and framing this discussion in terms of the role of popular cinema in the social production of individual and national identities.

  • Greenberg, Harvey, and Krin Gabbard. “Reel Recollection: Notes on the Cinematic Depiction of Memory.” PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts (27 January 1999).

    With a focus on the material representation of memory as psychological process, across the history of cinema, Greenberg and Gabbard succeed in providing a comprehensive introduction to the general question of memory and film.

  • Kilbourn, Russell J. A. “Introduction—Cinema, Memory, Modernity: The Return of Film as Memory.” In Cinema, Memory, Modernity: The Representation of Memory from the Art Film to Transnational Cinema. By Russell J. A. Kilbourn, 1–45. New York and London: Routledge, 2010.

    Looking beyond popular cinema alone (as in Erll and Wodianka 2008 and Erll 2011), Kilbourn provides an introduction to the cinematic representation of memory and film as global memory system, focusing on the international art film and its legacy in contemporary Hollywood and transnational cinema.

  • Radstone, Susannah. “Cinema and Memory.” In Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates. Edited by Susannah Radstone and Bill Schwartz, 325–342. New York: Fordham University Press, 2010.

    A succinct introduction, written expressly for this purpose by one of the leading scholars of memory studies.

  • Sinha, Amresh, and Terence McSweeney. “Introduction—Millennial Cinema: Memory in Global Film.” In Millennial Cinema: Memory in Global Film. Edited by Amresh Sinha and Terence McSweeney, 1–16. London and New York: Wallflower, 2009.

    Approaches the status of memory in a body of contemporary films that are in effect the product of the recent “memory boom” in theory and cultural practice, on the one hand, and globalization, on the other.

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