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