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Christian

Is Voiceover Narration Ever Useful?

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Missed this intriguing thread first time around, thanks for resurrecting it!

People have mentioed THIN RED LINE. I look to Malick for my number one favourite voice over: DAYS OF HEAVEN. Poetic, ironic, sad, evocative, illuminating, skewed - and that girl's voice! Superb.

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Mansfield Park deserves a mention as well. An example of voiceover actually adding to the construction of a character, rather than being detrimental to it. (In this case, establishing Frances O'Conner's character as a combination Fanny Price/Jane Austen. Able to comment upon events as well as shaping them)

Phil.

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Thanks for merging the threads! I should've taken the time to look this one up. I've enjoyed skimming back over this thread and plan to read it more carefully. (I can't believe I had forgotten my all time favorite voice-over narrations: Raising Arizona! -- there just may be something to the theory that good voice-over narration is so seamless you don't even remember it being there.)

One thought: I agree that the voice-over narration gives far too easy of an out to the writer/director. However, it can be effectively used, as a lot of these films demonstrate, to enhance the dramatic tension rather dillute it.

Another thought: In the cases of Goodfellas and A Clockwork Orange, we have films that raise an interesting dilemma for the audience. Here are individuals who have introduced themselves as criminals -- people we wouldn't normally trust. And yet right away the audience is left with no choice but to listen and tentatively "trust" them (at least while watching the film). So as an audience we find ourselves being "taken in" despite any potential misgivings we would otherwise have. (Something used in a less sinister way but to the same effect in Ferris Bueller's Day Off)

One last thought, and then I'll shut up (for now wink.gif ): Voice-over narration can be used by lazy writers/directors to force-feed their point. It is also true, however, that there are plenty of writers/directors who can do effectively the same thing without ever employing narration. We all know examples of cases where the visuals shove it in your face so much you know the director is screaming "Do you get it? Do you get it?"

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I also really liked the sophisticated way voice-overs were used in ELECTION, where we hear first-person comments from a number of the characters. For starters, we're accustomed to just one viewpoint character: to have that shift catches our attention.

Too, there is always a tension between how we perceive a character in the action of the film and how we perceive them once we've seen the action through their eyes.

Many found the film condescending or hostile toward its characters. I had the opposite experience, largely due to the voice-overs: the ready harsh judgements were almost invariably undercut with a certain compassion once I'd seen things from their perspective, heard their thoughts.

Interesting that ABOUT SCHMIDT also has voice over. Both films came from novels: I wonder if that's a factor? Does SIDEWAYS do the same?

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Martin Scorcese's The Age of Innocence is a good (bad) example. Every time Joanne Woodward's voiceover chimes in it feels like Scorcese is whispering, "I'm out of my comfort zone, folks, so here's an Oscar-winning actress to fill in the blanks."

excl.gif

I opened this thread with the intention of highlighting how wonderful the voice over in the Age of Innocence is. Without it the film would be a romantic melodrama (a good one, but little else), with it it becomes a sharp commentary of the role of society on the individual. New York becomes a character through the voice over. It lends the film humour and proves to be an essential guide to the practices of a society unknown to us. Without it, everyone's motives would be much reduced to a modern audience. The opening scene at the opera, the ball, would be lost without it. It works so well, for me, because it is subtle and, unlike most narrations which are used solely to retell the story non-visually, it takes a position. I have to admit, though, that perhaps I'm so fond of it because it brings Edith Wharton's voice to the film. I love her work and am a particular fan of The Age of Innocence.

Which leads me to

To this list we must add the opening montage of Manhattan. It captured such great feelings from a writer trying to bring literary life to the city he loves. The visuals of the skyscrapers and fireworks over the skyline, added to Allen's "Allenesque" narration, were flawless. It certainly made me a believer in the magnificence of The Big Apple.

And honestly, has the engulfing power of New York ever been captured and portrayed better?

Yes, yes, and yes (or should that be no?). I actually used that clip in a presentation I did on the plan for Manhattan at uni. I would add that the voiceover was also incredibly sharp in noting how the city has been portrayed in film and literature and what role this has to play in our imagining it. A great way to open a film essentially about New York. The only thing you missed was... oh how I wish I could insert music here... the George Gershwin accompaniment. I think I'm going to have to go watch this now, I've got all excited just thinking about it.

Edited by gigi

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Criterion's website has a new article on this topic.

In this installment of Focus, five noted film writers turn their attention to voice-over narration and its attendant controversies, examining the joys and pitfalls of this contested technique...

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Criterion's website has a new article on this topic.

In this installment of Focus, five noted film writers turn their attention to voice-over narration and its attendant controversies, examining the joys and pitfalls of this contested technique...

Thanks for the link. What timing, eh?

ant

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Watched A Christmas Story today, and I must admit that there wouldn't be much of a movie here without Jean Sheppard's wonderful narration.

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Thanks for resurrecting this thread; lots of great thoughts to chew through here!

just finished watching City of God last night and it got me to thinking about films that have a narrator. I always seem to enjoy films with narrators, because it gives me an opportunity to get into somebody's head. I especially like the opportunity for editorial comments it affords.

Yes and yes. ;)

What I mean is, as Peter also mentioned above, there's two different ends of the spectrum that we call "Voiceover". On one end we have a character's thoughts, spoken aloud (thus "getting inside somebody's head"), and on the other end we have narration by a third party, the voice of the writer, if you will (thus "the opportunity for editorial comments").

I almost think these two possibilities are worth thinking about separately from each other, since they work in very different ways, at least in my experience. The former possibility tends to seamlessly integrate, when done well, with dialogue and the flow of the narrative. Meanwhile, the latter functions at its best more like music, providing a commentary on the story which the restrictions of "classical" cinema tend to discourage. That kind of commentary can be somewhat jarring, although it certainly isn't always so. It's no surprise to me that, as with music, many directors have reacted negatively to voiceovers of this kind, since they take people out of the story - and it does surprise me a little that the technique hasn't gotten a more vehement defense from those who realize that it can put a tool in the director's hand to shape and control the narrative very efficiently.

Edited by David Smedberg

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There are some good examples of felicitous use of voiceover in this thread. When used effectively I find it hard not to like. However, I do think a major problem with voiceover narration is that it separates the narrator from the story much more than in prose fiction (which is where the idea came from). In a novel in which the story is told only through the words of the narrator, the narrative is intimately shaped by his or her experience, and readers participate in that self-narrative as the narrator presents it in words. But in film words are ancillary to images in telling the story--characters don't really have a "voice," or at least not in the same way. Thus, it seems to me that the authority of the film narrator is compromised from the outset. The technique divides the viewer: we sense or know that there is another storyteller beyond the spoken words, someone who puts the images together, and yet we are asked to believe the narrator. Voiceover, in my opinion, almost always undercuts the possiblity of imaginative belief in the film narrative. This is not to say that it is impossible to use the technique; I'm just noting what I think is a real difficulty warranting consideration.

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In Synecdoche, New York I found the Diane Wiest VO at the end very interesting. Of course,

at that point, she is playing Caden and directing the play. He VO really isn't VO it's the direction she is giving him through his earpiece.

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Australia has significant bits of VO narration by the child character that seem thematically significant, but don't, I think, work organically in several places.

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Soderbergh's Ocean's series would be unwatchably long without voiceover. He economically pushes up to three subplots and/or simultaneously introduces new plot twists with voiceover and simple pantomine constantly. Forgive the obsession, but it appears to me to be a marvelous homage to Billy Wilder who added complexity to sparse stories by voiceover. Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend are great examples. The revered Sunset Boulevard would be just another wierd film without it.

Edited by Rich Kennedy

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As soon as I heard the narrator's voice in Vicky Cristina Barcelona I felt annoyed. I don't need to be told this stuff. And Woody Allen admits that he used it to avoid exposition:

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Not your typical voiceover: Max von Sydow in <i>Zentropa.</i> Pulls you into the film in a hypnotic, you-are-the-character sort of way.

We don't appear to have a dedicated Zentropa thread, so I'm linking here to this recent piece on the film, which states, "This is a slow film that's more about light, space and emotions than plot. Between the dark visuals, the droning score and the deep-voiced "hypnotist" narrator (who unwisely keeps repeating phrases like, "You are getting very sleepy ... "), it's not something you'll want to start watching late at night, unless you augment the experience with a pot of strong espresso and a couple of bricks of dark chocolate."

I don't agree with that -- the film's visual strengths, also mentioned in the piece, are more than enough to keep viewers alert, I think. But it's an amusing line, and it fits this thread topic, so...

Edited by Christian

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I'm not a big fan of Everything is Illuminated, but the voiceover in it does a good job of capturing the voice of the novel, which I loved. (It's been a while since I watched A Clockwork Orange. Did the movie keep Alex's dialect from the book?)

Adaptation totally would not have worked without Cage's voiceover.

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(It's been a while since I watched A Clockwork Orange. Did the movie keep Alex's dialect from the book?)

Absolutely.

Kicking myself for not making it to a screening that was a mile away from me on a great screen last week. Of course, that show was at midnight. But, still... It would have been the first time I'd seen it in nearly twenty years and I'd imagine my take would be vastly different from when I saw it last...

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The revered Sunset Boulevard would be just another wierd film without it.

I'm not sure. I think SUNSET BOULEVARD is a remarkable film, but it could afford to cut back on the narration, if not lose it altogether.

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The revered Sunset Boulevard would be just another wierd film without it.

I'm not sure. I think SUNSET BOULEVARD is a remarkable film, but it could afford to cut back on the narration, if not lose it altogether.

Cut back, arguably. Lose, not a chance. It becomes a completely different movie. The whole "Here's the real story" dynamic and the "Yup, that's me" make the movie the movie that it is.

I say that having just watched it a week or two ago.

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An interesting piece about 'lazy' VOs: What do voice-overs in movies really tell you?

...whenever a film uses a voice over, that character is actually not “honest.” I don’t mean they are liars, but that the character wants to be seen in his way, not the way his behavior makes him appear to anyone observing. The directors don’t (usually) signal this on purpose, but in crafting the story they realize that they want the character to “be” something other than his actions are telling you he is, and so the voice over is necessary to pull the audience in line with his thoughts, preventing the objective interpretation of his actions.

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This reminds me of how Sarah Green, producer of Terrence Malick's last few films, remarked on the junket for The New World that some of Colin Farrell's rhapsodically romanticized voice-overs (in which he praised Native Americans for being so much better than Europeans) were placed over images which suggested that Native Americans were susceptible to the same sins and jealousies as the rest of us.

Which is to say, sometimes voice-overs do *deliberately* work against the images.

I might have said this earlier in this thread -- I can't recall -- but whenever I've lectured on filmic techniques, I have sometimes contrasted the two films in which Stanley Kubrick used voice-over. On the one hand, you get the extremely subjective voice-over in A Clockwork Orange, in which the Malcolm McDowell character tells you everything he's thinking and draws the viewer into his madness, on a certain level; and then, you get the much more objective, and even sarcastic and dismissive, voice-over in Barry Lyndon, which *distances* us from the movie's title character and the events he lives through because it is delivered by someone we never see within the actual film. (Oh, wait, I *did* make this point, eight years ago, here.)

I remember also liking the voice-over in Little Children because it was delivered by such a strongly paternalistic voice, in a film where nearly everyone seemed to be lacking a father.

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The voice-over could be a very welcome addition to a movie indeed. In Badlands, for example, Malick uses the 'trick' of using a woman's narration to distract us (to a certain extent) of Kit's insanity so we don't see him as inheretly violent all the time, but someone who chooses to become evil as he goes along.

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