Have I died and gone to heaven? Is this a film geek's dream? The folks at The Criterion Collection, who besides releasing glorious DVDs have a really smart website, offer not one, but five excellent defenses of voice-over narration.
Of course, most of us may not have have ever considered whether it needs defending, but it's a real sticking point with film students and people who read Robert McKee's book on screenwriting, and you could even say it first came out in the open as some pansy-ass aesthetic issue with Adaptation, Spike Jonze' film of Charlie Kaufman's semi-pseudo-autobiographical script, where McKee is a character. The famous money quote:
"And God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character."
I've heard or read this thought parroted several times since, and three lines always immediately soar to mind.
"What I do for a living may not be very reputable. But I am. In this town I'm the leper with the most fingers. " — The Two Jakes, screenplay by Robert Towne.
"I went to call the cops, but I knew she'd be dead before they got there and I'd be free. Bannister's note to the DA would fix it. I'd be innocent officially, but that's a big word, innocent. Stupid's more like it. Well, everybody is somebody's fool. The only way to stay out of trouble is to grow old, so I guess I'll concentrate on that. Maybe I'll live so long that I'll forget her. Maybe I'll die, trying." — The Lady from Shanghai, screenplay by Orson Welles.
"You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it on the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it." — Mean Streets, screenplay by Martin Scorsese and Mardik Martin.
All great lines, all voice-over, all perfectly memorable, and all achieving emotional effects you couldn't possibly get through just dialogue. These are the kinds of eloquent thoughts and reflections that come to life in a character's head, not when he's having a beer with a friend or laying in bed with his wife. They would sound too "written," too literary that way — and even if they weren't, they have more resonance when spoken over a scene rather than within it.