Thursday, March 22, 2012

Narration, Voiceover, and the Shape of the World

“I felt that people that frown on voiceover, it’s just a stupid thing. You think of the pictures that had voiceover, and they’re the best pictures ever. I mean, Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Jules and Jim. Jules and Jim is 90 percent voiceover. And The Wild Child. And even commercial films. Billy Jack had voiceover. Clockwork Orange. So that, “Show it, don’t tell it,” I think is a stupid reaction. You can be inventive in an independent picture with voiceover, and it’s one thing you can do that, in a large studio picture… they aren’t likely to do. And voiceover also helps you to cover an enormous amount of long as you don’t use it the wrong way, and that is to cheat on exposition. And you can even use it that way and it’s just fine. You know, I really do believe that as long as a picture has the breath of life in it that it’s not going to matter what kind of mistakes you make, including the expository use of voiceover.” – Terrence Malick, 1976

Do we still treat narration and voiceover like proper filmmaking technique’s bastard step-child? People have been mouthing the “show, don’t tell” platitude for decades now. And it’s understandable: The desire to “tell” is often great, and it’s not a bad idea to combat convenience and temptation. But still. Forget the films Malick cites in the above 1976 quote and think of the ones we’d cite now, many moons later. Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Malick’s own Badlands and Days of Heaven, Full Metal Jacket. Or avoid the film-snob brigade altogether and make your way down to Risky Business and/or Avatar, if you prefer.

Of course, film teachers and other wise men will tell you that each of these aforementioned voiceovers is unique, that it furthers the film in question in some uniquely cinematic way that sets it apart from ordinary, just-the-facts-ma’am and doing-it-wrong narration. Maybe. But then again, if it’s not unique your problem isn’t bad narration, it’s bad filmmaking, and, ultimately, a bad film.

Many claim that voiceover (and I am cheating a little bit here by using "voiceover" and "narration" as interchangeable, even though they're somewhat different things) is not very rigorous, and yet some of the most rigorous films ever made – Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and A Man Escaped, Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad – utilize it. We mouth to ourselves the idea that there’s something impure about narration, but when it pops up in the right situation we embrace it. Sometimes I wonder if we just create these rules so other people can break them.

Days of Heaven
Yes, there’s always been a certain push-pull in cinema over words, and films that can make their point with a minimum of words – be it dialogue or voiceover – are often considered ipso facto superior. The greatest of silent films – The Last Laugh, Sunrise, et al. – barely have any title cards.

But take, for example, Linda Manz’s narration in Days of Heaven. True, what she says is beautiful ("Mebbe it was the way the wind blew troo her hair..."), but on some level what she says doesn’t even matter all that much. There’s something about the very quality of her voice – the awkward way she pronounces certain words, the complete lack of inhibition, the directness of her dialogue, even when she’s speaking in metaphors (or what the film would have us believe are metaphors). The same goes for Sissy Spacek in Badlands – though many of the events she relates come directly from what’s happening onscreen, it’s the innocent matter-of-fact-ness in her voice that beguiles us, draws us further into her world. The sound of her voice when she speaks directly to us is quite different from the sound of her voice when she speaks to Kit (Martin Sheen). Somewhere in between these two voices, we could say, lies the movie.

So consider, for a second, that when we talk about voiceover we’re not really talking about words. Voiceover can be a form of intimacy. The human voice – its timbre, the way it echoes in your mind – is one of the most cinematic things we have. When, in Goodfellas, the narration suddenly switches from Ray Liotta’s impressionably aggressive wise guy to Lorraine Bracco’s no-nonsense city girl, there’s an electrifying transfer of energy – like competing forces fighting over the shape of the story raging on the screen. (Scorsese used the trick again in Casino, to create an altogether different transfer of energy between Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.)  Narration can be the movie whispering in your ear, or thumping its chest. It can be the movie lying to you or choosing not to tell you things you want (or maybe don’t want) to hear. It can be a dodge, a tease, a clasped hand or a slap. It is, on some level, the most direct way the movie can speak to you.

Even when narration doesn’t seem to issue forth from an actual character, it can breathe a kind of life into the film. Let’s consider Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and its seemingly omniscient, third-person commentary spoken by Michael Hordern in what feels like the very voice of refinement, wit, and knowledge. He calmly narrates Redmond Barry’s life story as if he were guiding us through a museum exhibit, observing and discoursing with occasional hints of patronizing affection, preparing us for certain developments, never veering from the script.
The narration comes almost directly from the novel, except that the novel is written in the first person and is ostensibly being narrated by Barry himself. This is a striking change in the transfer from fiction to film, turning the subjective into the seemingly objective. Especially since the novel is also one big lie. Nothing that Barry says is really to be trusted. It’s a book written in 1844, but it pretends to have been written in the late 18th (or early 19th) century, and even uses the distinctly 18th century forms of the picaresque and the Pepys-ian memoir. (In this sense, it’s a bit like Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, only maybe not as extreme.) The novel creates meaning through the combination of its 19th century reader and its 18th century form.

So, then, is the film’s narrator to be trusted? Can we take his cool and erudite detachment at face value? Some would argue we can’t, and that we have to regard him as fundamentally unreliable. But I think Kubrick’s doing something a lot savvier here. The narrator has a certain Olympian distance, but he flattens, categorizes, pigeonholes – in Allan Spiegel’s words, he “determines the status of the action as the ineffable, transient, and sometimes irregular inflection of lives already packaged by memory.” The narrator tells us that which Barry cannot see. He lifts one important perceptual block -- that of the immediate destiny of the story -- and privileges us to watch the unknowing characters at the mercy of this destiny. He is the voice of time, of hindsight, of retrospective regard. And, as pleasant as he is, he is also often merciless -- as when he informs us that Barry will die childless over an image of Barry and his young son riding quietly down a road.

But he also denies the characters a kind of humanity. Barry Lyndon presents itself to the eye initially as all structure, all aesthetic patterning. The film’s visual scheme has what many find to be a stifling rhythm: many of its scenes begin with a close-up, then slowly zoom out to reveal characters dwarfed by a landscape or a drawing room, often immobile. And yet this is also a film with moments of such lyrical beauty and heartache that its overall effect is not one of coolness (no matter what its detractors say) but a kind of inconsolable longing. It is a film which brings characters into focus just long enough for them to slip away. And I suspect it’s a longing that comes from the director’s own self. Barry Lyndon is about Kubrick facing the limitations of trying to imagine the past – it’s about how the act of giving shape to a world and a life necessarily reduces it.*

Barry Lyndon
But unlike life, art has to have a kind of shape. We like to think of life as a journey, but in reality life just is. When we try and give our lives shape, I think we fall prey to a kind of delusion -- but it’s a noble, artistic one, and we all do it. If you think about it, maybe there’s something about narration in a film that mirrors this impulse in life. I’ve had many dreams where I imagined my life was suddenly being narrated by someone. I am assuming that people didn’t have such dreams before the existence of cinema – but is it possible that someone, somewhere did?

Maybe the best way to illustrate the importance of voiceover is to point to a film that, for the most part, lacks it. Bernardo Bertolucci chose, at two points in The Sheltering Sky, to insert Paul Bowles himself in the film, watching his characters and intoning, in voiceover, lines from his book. It was an odd stylistic choice, to say the least, but Bertolucci said that he did so because he was missing “literature” in the film. He wanted to bring back this sense of literature, which I take to mean this sense of the word, this notion that these were ultimately characters and situations out of the writer’s (and the filmmaker’s) dream.**

But this brief insertion of narration in The Sheltering Sky also serves to highlight the film’s otherwise almost dangerous shapelessness. Bertolucci’s film is a masterpiece, but it also meanders and never quite settles, much like its characters. You never quite know where it’s going to lead you – especially as it wanders from the world of dissolute and jaded Western intellectuals into the world of wordless Otherism, towards unease and silence and the dissolution of identity. It’s a dangerous film, in other words. You fear you could get lost in it and never emerge, however much the frame might be circumscribed by the edges of the movie screen.

The Sheltering Sky

But then, somewhat crazily, in the final scene, Paul Bowles comes back, asks a half-mad Debra Winger if she’s lost, and, upon her answer (“Yes!”) launches into what might be the most beautiful passage from his most beautiful book.
"Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless."
And suddenly, right as it fades out, the film has shape again – but it’s a false kind of shape. Because neither the novel of The Sheltering Sky nor the film are really carpe diem stories, and this little passage, haunting as it is, reduces them to one. What is this amazing dodge of a scene anything other than Bertolucci trying to find an ending to his dangerously endless film – to bring something that has taken on too many of the ever-winding contours of life back into the realm of art, and to remind us that the whole thing was always just one man's dream?

*And I’m not surprised that it’s the film he wound up making after his Napoleon project fell through – for there was a film that he’d been researching endlessly, tirelessly. In its wake he made a movie about the impossible dream of seeing the past.

**Which is perhaps ironic, because these characters were modeled after Paul Bowles’s own life, on himself and his wife Jane. Thus, “the sense of literature” becomes something else – Paul Bowles looking gracefully on his characters and, on some level, a stylized fragment of his own life. So the gentle, quiet old man at the far end of the bar is not just the writer, but maybe a vision of the future.


  1. I was thinking about these issues only the other week when I rewatched Neil Jordan's 'The Butcher Boy' - a film whose soundtrack is almost wall-to-wall voiceover narration, but done in a highly unusual and imaginative way.

    Essentially, while watching the teenager Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens) on screen, we're hearing his older self (played by Stephen Rea) constantly explaining/justifying his behaviour from his own decidedly warped POV - but he's often a beat behind the onscreen action, so we invariably form our own opinion at first, which is then subverted by his interpretation.

    Handily, this technique also allows Jordan to retain vast chunks of Patrick MacCabe's original novel, which would have lost a great deal of its slangy virtuosity if it had been dramatised in a more conventional way.

  2. Michael, that's a great example. It's been ages since I saw THE BUTCHER BOY. Seems to me there's a concordance there with A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as well, to some extent.

  3. Malick is correct. Narration is fine, provided it doesn't ruin the exposition. It can certainly enhance the language of any given picture; I can't imagine somebody today adapting a William Faulkner novel to the screen, for example, and NOT including a voiceover of some kind. If they don't, they're, well, missing the whole essence of Faulkner.

    Barry Lyndon is absolutely a film that requires narration, especially because Hordern's snarky narrator is integral to our understanding of that movie's substance.

  4. For modern examples of extremely clever use of VO, my faves are ELECTION, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, ANNIE HALL, and THE PRESTIGE. Recently, Mike Mills' BEGINNERS used it excellently. My theory is that VO gets a bad rap because both beginner writers and cynical producers lean on it as a crutch (eg. BLADE RUNNER), and anything those two groups have in common must be evil.

  5. Alexander Payne and Christopher Nolan are both modern masters of VO. MEMENTO and THE PRESTIGE are excellent examples, but even INCEPTION has a couple of moments of VO that are beautifully done.

    I think part of the problem is that VO never really looks good on the page. Without getting a real sense of the narrator's inflection and rhythm, it's hard to understand how it will work. And to have these large chunks of text in the middle of the page...oy. It's a good example of the discrepancy between screenwriting form and filmmaking technique.

    1. I have nothing against VO, but would like to say (speaking of Alexander Payne), the main reason I disliked THE DESCENDANTS was the use of VO in the opening. I felt like it laid out the land too quickly and conveniently, and there was nothing left for the audience to do. I found it a bit lazy. Would love to hear your POV on this. Thanks!

  6. I got into a conversation with a friend about books we'd love to see, or adapt, as movies. I mentioned this one series of novels that'd make a tremendous miniseries. We;'d both read the series, and a large chunk of one of the books relied not only on a characters' letters, but their use of cryptography, _and_ the planting of false messages. My friend said that this meant that it couldn't be adapted.

    I replied that voice-over would be the best way to handle it... and was amazed at how vehemently my friend insisted that this was lazy storytelling, that films should tell their stories visually, etc., etc. I insisted that a lot of great films use narration and voice-over (but I wish I'd had Malick's list handy).

    For me, the issue is how the voice-over works with the associated visuals. The scenes in _Casino_ where De Niro explains how the place works are stunning... but they _need_ his voice-over to explain what we're seeing. In Malick's films, the visuals and voice-overs need not relate to one another: you wind up absorbing two different aspects of a rich and complex world.

    Or, take the books I'd mentioned above, where the characters' letters included false assertions intended to fool people decoding the encrypted messages. One might have the character's voice-over say "I spent the day in boring meetings over taxes, so I have nothing of interest to report," but the visuals may show the character doing something very, crucially different.

  7. Intriguing, Brian. I think Nolan does something interesting with codes and false messages in the VO of THE PRESTIGE. In the right hands, that sort of thing can work marvelously.

    Was the series in question written by Neal Stephenson, by any chance? Just hazarding a guess here...

  8. Good guess. I keep wanting to try adapting it, just as a writing exercise. Can't do that without the rights, and since I'm not likely to actually film it...

  9. One of the VOs that's puzzled me the most is the Ricky Jay VO from Magnolia. I always ask myself, "Why is this here?" even though it's obviously important thematically. Still, as important as it might be, and as much as I like it, it has a kitchen-sink feeling to it, as if PTA were trying to cram as many cinematic flourishes as he possibly could into one movie. It feels excessive, but exuberantly so.

  10. Robert BurgoyneMay 5, 2012 at 5:45 PM

    Good stuff here. I like Kubrick's The Killing especially well for this. Without it the film couldn't exist. It's an interesting way of thinking about directors. I can't recall or even imagine a Hitchcock film with VO, nor a Ford (am I wrong about this?)

    I expect we're talking about non-diegetic VO here, but otherwise I'd like to cite one of my recent favorite examples, Stone's Alexander, with its rationalizing, fatalistic Ptolemy, as far removed from the flamboyance of the life he is narrating as can be.

  11. Thanks, Robert. RE: Hitchcock -- I think REBECCA has voiceover, no? But you're right, it's not common in his work, or in Ford's. (Did HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY or THE LONG GRAY LINE have VO?)

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