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Why Robert McKee is Wrong About Voice-Overs

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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.

Far from being a cheap way out, voice-overs can be an extremely effective, illuminating tool — and as Sarah Kozloff’s essay shows, it’s has a creative history — and a controversy — almost as long as the medium itself.

So why are we still debating the legitimacy of voice-over? Like the technique itself, the criticisms against voice-over narration go back as far as the medium, stemming from fiercely held beliefs about cinema’s unique characteristics—its “specificity”—and its relationship with its audience.

The reason has always been the same:

A fallback charge against voice-over narration is that using it is insulting to the audience. Voice-over narration is suspect because it is a means of “telling” rather than “showing.” “Telling” is judged as a mark of laziness and/or condescension.

I don’t know much at all about film theory — I don’t really have the patience it takes to read it, any more than I have the patience to read Alan Dale — but Kozloff knows it, and she points out something that almost goes to the core of any kind of prose or storytelling:

Contemporary documentary theorists such as Jeffrey Youdelman and Bill Nichols … argue that in many circumstances narration is a more forthright, honest approach to the subject matter than pretending that the represented scenes speak for themselves or that editing is noncoercive. In this line of argument, they echo the thinking of literary theorist Wayne Booth, who wrote in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), “Since Flaubert, many authors and critics have been convinced that ‘objective’ or ‘impersonal’ or ‘dramatic’ modes of narration are naturally superior to any mode that allows for direct appearance by the author or his reliable spokesman. Sometimes . . . the complex issues involved in this shift have been reduced to a convenient distinction between ‘showing,’ which is artistic, and ‘telling,’ which is inartistic.” Booth brilliantly demonstrated, however, that reducing overt marks of narration or hiding the author’s hand are just variant rhetorical strategies: “Showing” is just as manipulative as “telling.” Ernest Hemingway is guiding his readers just as much as George Eliot—only more surreptitiously.

Consider something else, too — if voice-over is such a sin, what about long monologues in Bergman’s films? Ingrid Thulin in Winter Light and Bibi Andersson in Persona both deliver absorbing narrative speeches full of event and detail, so perfectly captivating that you can visualize the stories as they are being told — that, too, is cinema, and of a very high order.

Kozloff and the other essayists frequently cite famous modern uses of voice-over in Terence Malick’s Badlands and the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona — and something suddenly occurred to me.

First of all, I loathe Badlands as I do most of Malick’s suffocatingly artsy work, and Michael Atkinson’s description of Sissy Spacek’s narration cuts no ice with me whatsoever: a “disaffected, twangy, living-deadpan reading, which suggests depths of severe emotional disconnection and mutant perspective that we otherwise hardly see in this superbly opaque character’s actions.” No, for me, Pauline Kael was the one who had it down cold: Spacek’s character narrates “in her corrupted-by-pop, fifteen-year-old baton twirler’s notion of a literary attitude. The whole movie is filtered through the callowness of her childish Southwestern voice and her soap-operatic confessional phrasing.”

That “notion of a literary attitude” is the very same thing we hear in the somber voice of Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona, only there it was played for laughs.

Were the Coens mocking Malick in their subtle way? I’d have to see the movie again to be sure, but damn, how could they not be?

Atkinson likes the numbing voice-over of The Thin Red Line, too, where “the voice-over weft Malick built for the present version is virtually a movie all by itself, a Tarkovskyian metaphysical brood that transforms a war movie into a transcendental meditation on innocence, experience, life, death, civilization, and nature.” Know what? It’s also boring as shit. I felt almost as if I was watching Field of Dreams again — or Badlands.

Malick’s ideal of narration is Spacek! His idea of eloquence is “soap-operatic confessional phrasing”!

The examples used by Adrian Martin in her essay indirectly brought to mind another possible connection: Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The voice of one almost certainly informed the voice of the other — and correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t Paul Schrader some kind of a Bresson theorist, or am I just imagining that?

Also, Chris Chang makes me want to see Hiroshima, Mon Amour again, and Paul Arthur makes me want to see The Age of Innocence for the first time.

Robert McKee and his little rules — they’re for amateurs.

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About Bunuel

  • While I think McKee is too absolutist, there is a lot of bad voice over and narration in features and documentaries.

    Some of the best docs like Hoop Dreams and Frederick Wiseman‘s films don’t have narration.

    David Fincher said he was very careful in recording Edward Norton’s voice over in Fight Club so it would sound like thoughts in his head.

  • (posted in two parts because of too many links)

    Jessica Yu used Dakota Fanning very well for the narration in The Realms of the Unreal (which should have gotten an Oscar nomination).

    I’m going to see her on a panel and Hiroshima Mon Amour (which I haven’t seen since college) Saturday as part of the Asian American International Film Festival (the link is to my preview). If you’re in San Francisco, HMA is at the Castro at 5 pm.

  • As a fan, I’m on the record for preferring voice-over to excision of thoughts in movie scripts.

  • Steve,

    Many documentaries avoid overlapping narration: Robert Drew and Richard Leacock (Primary), D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back), and the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin (Salesman, Gimme Shelter.) So did another recent documentary, the Oscar-nominated The Story of the Weeping Camel. I’m sure it’s a very difficult thing to do, just letting the images speak for themselves.

    Please note I’m not opposed to no narration; I just don’t think that including narration is a fault.

  • Adrian Martin is a ‘he’, not a ‘she’, and I should know!

  • Sorry, Adrian — my bad

  • Nick

    The best choice for the narrative…

    There are many choices of expression available to any artist in any medium. Whether expressing ideas through voice-over, flashback, dialogue, event structure, imagery, symbol, and others, the artist chooses the type of expression that best communicates an idea with the audience.

    McKee may have been heavy-handed with his remark on voice-overs. He may be stating it overzealously to call attention to how the voice-over expression has been abused.

    Either way, it’s speculation.

    The critical point isn’t whether voice-over is valid, but identifying where and when it’s the best choice of expression. A post that quantifies another’s opinion as “for amateurs” might not be as beneficial to aspiring writers, or the blogger’s credibility, as blog post that attempts to help a writer consider when the voice-over should be considered.

    But I suppose that would be the more difficult choice, requiring critical thinking and an effort invested in clarity of argument.

    Much like the choice to write without voice-over.

  • Anton Yakovlev

    Robert McKee is not wrong because if he read this article he would probably disagree with one thing and one thing only: the fact that he is believed to hold a different view somehow. In fact, McKee could have himself written or at least subscribed to pretty much any factual statement or value judgment made within this article. The problem is not with McKee, but with those that oversimplify his message.

    The phrasing used by Adaptation’s version of McKee may indeed sound too absolutist; however, Kaufman, not McKee, authored everything in that movie including McKee’s seminar lines, and it’s a far simplified version of McKee’s actual viewpoint (while McKee endorsed and helped with the movie, his endorsement may simply mean that he did not care enough to change it, rather than fully subscribe to it).

    The way McKee approaches the topic in his book ‘Story’ is far more flexible. While he does take issue with voice-overs as a shortcut/excuse for being lazy (and for this reason may discourage beginning, inexperienced writers from even thinking of using it), he fully acknowledges that the technique can work fabulously when used for good reason by someone who knows what they are doing:

    “Like the Flashback, it’s done well or ill. The test of narration is this: Ask yourself, ‘If I were to strip the voice-over out of my screenplay, would the story still be well told?’ If the answer is yes . . . keep it.”

    “Counterpoint narration is Woody Allen’s great gift. If we were to cut the voice-over from ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ or ‘Husbands and Wives’ his stories would still be lucid and effective. But why would we? His narration offers wit, ironies, and insights that can’t be done any other way.”

    Doesn’t this sound a bit like, “All great lines, all voice-over, all perfectly memorable, and all achieving emotional effects you couldn’t possibly get through just dialogue” (see article above)?

    While I agree with all the points this article makes in favor of voice-over, it seems to me that Rodney Welch has chosen a wrong opponent to fight against. In reality McKee and Welch hold pretty much the same opinion of the subject. The only people from whom voice-over should be defended are those who misunderstand and oversimplify what McKee actually says. This may or may not include Charlie Kaufman, as well as all those film students or audience members who overreacted to McKee’s words of warning to beginning writers and mistakenly took it to be a blanket dismissal of ALL voice-overs, rather than merely a dismissal of BAD and LAZY voice-overs, which was McKee’s point.

  • Daniel Felder

    Have any of you actually read Robert Mckee’s, “Story”. If all you know of this literary giant is what you’ve heard or seen in adaptation then you’re attack on him is unfair and erroneous in the extreme. When discussing the technique of voice over in, “Story” Mckee says, and I quote, “If you can take out the voice over and have the story still work… keep it in. You most likely have found one of the rare, elegant uses of the device. Voice over for exposition is a lazy, artificial and pathetic device and god help you if you use it. But voice over used to color the narrative can be a wonderful device indeed.”

    If you pay attention to all the excelent voice overs listed in the main article you will find that none of them are used solely for exposition and the movies could work just find without them. To write an article in defense of voice overs is like writing an article in defense of the color blue. It is merely part of the artist’s pallete. Robert Mckee is attacking bad uses of the device, not the good ones, and he says as much in his all-popular book.

    Sorry for those of you who bought the five videos. “Story” costs less and will teach you more.

  • Auguste Lumiere

    In response to the discrepancies between the fictional “Robert McKee” and the “real” Robert McKee, its a rather obvious one, in drama you are going to “exaggerate” this “mythic” figure for comic/dramatic purposes so there was no “realism” intended on the part of the filmmakers.

    However, there is also a fundamental difference between the “written” word (McKee’s word’s in “Story”) and the “spoken” word (Kaufman’s words as delivered by Brian Cox in “Adaptation”), one could say this is yet another adaptation (or translation) in itself.

    But, this “spoken” language is clearly embedded in McKee’s comments about voice-over, his words are extremely macho and full of bravado … so i feel the screen version of McKee and what he declaims is actually quite accurate “caricature” … yes he makes allowances for when voice-over is appropriate (and not in most cases), but they are on his “absolutist” terms … one could in fact conclude that Robert McKee is in fact the ultimate “voice-of-God” narrator!

    [an aside Robert McKee thought Harold Bloom (“Anxiety of Influence”) should have played him in the film]

  • MDP

    Rober McKee is like the parent or teacher informing us to color inside the lines. We find in time those lines are breakable, enabling personal, colorful expression. Knowing where the lines are, though, is important; when we cross them we do so with truth.

  • Marlies

    I’m writing a paper about the comeback of voice-over narration in film and television shows and I have had some difficulty with finding primary sources concerning the negative image of voice-over. Maybe you can help me?