When — and How — Great Movie Narration Works

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Film narration carries the dubious reputation of being a fallback trick for lesser directors, a device to trot out when other more classically visual narrative devices fail. In the same way that long, unbroken takes supposedly signify expertise, the use of narration often serves lazy critics with an easy indication that the director has lost the plot. Still, even the most anti-narration snob would have to concede that the larger film canon contains some pretty notable exceptions to this rule. The Naked City, A Clockwork Orange, Sunset Boulevard, GoodFellas, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Big Lebowski, The Shawshank Redemption — all use narration, and far from stalling story or characterization, with them it pushes everything forward.

Rather than quibbling over the merits of the device itself, acknowledging those notable examples of its effective use would at least seem to necessitate deeper analysis. If some filmmakers have successfully used it, serious students of film should probably take a closer look, if only to better understand the exceptions that prove the rule. To that end, we could loosely categorize film narration into four different groups according to two distinctions: the distance of the narrator’s involvement with the film’s conflict and themes, and the directness with which the narrator addresses the viewer.

The first distinction is represented on one end of the spectrum by films like Taxi Driver, where the narration directly clues the viewer in to the motivations of a certain character or elaborates on the conflict that drives the film forward. Taxi Driver is an especially good example of the so-called involved voiceover, because it gives a first-hand view to the inner workings of the main character Travis Bickle’s demented psychology, fleshing out his odd behavior with an equally discomfiting internal monologue. Watching Bickle talk to his own reflection while parading an arsenal of homemade weapons is certainly harrowing, but to hear him detail the skewed reasoning behind his plotting with talk about “a real rain that will wash the scum off the streets” only adds another level to his menace.

On the other end of this “involvement spectrum,” we see films like The Royal Tenenbaums, which feature a totally detached third person narrator who nonetheless comments meaningfully on the film’s action from afar. Played with a perfect mixture of somber knowingness and monotone disinterest by a heard-and-not-seen Alec Baldwin, the voiceover for Tenenbaums still adds layers of thematic meaning to much of what goes on. Whether by adding back-story, as when the narrator informs the audience of the divorce of Royal and Ethel Tenenbaum in the first scene, or character insight, as when he explains in one scene that Royal “didn’t realize what he had said was true until after he had said it,” the voiceover’s apartness actually serves as a useful perspective from which to view the action along with the audience and insert helpful cues along the way.

The second distinction, having to do with the directness of address, or the level of audience engagement of the narration, involves how forcefully the narration is meant to appeal to the viewer. With films like High Fidelity or Annie Hall, for instance, the narrator grabs the viewer by the lapels and demands attention, speaking directly into the camera with vocal inflections suggesting conversation rather than monologue. This is probably the trickiest sort of voiceover to pull off, and the one that grates the worst when done wrong.

The other end is represented by narrators who speak with an authoritative, almost historical tone, rattling off characters’ back-stories with seemingly little consideration of who may be watching or why. I found the tone of the initial voiceover by Cate Blanchett as Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring especially removed in this sense. Galadriel is involved in the goings on of the film’s story, interceding at several key moments throughout the saga, and yet she could not be more tonally remote from the audience. In fact, that is half the pleasure of Galadriel’s narration: She sounds like she’s speaking to the viewer from another world.

The importance of this relative level of audience engagement reveals itself most in unreliable narration. For instance, the main character from Memento narrates intimately, always invoking the viewer’s sympathies, and yet because of Leonard’s particular character quirks, this closeness proves false by film’s end.

If a diversity of type speaks anything to the value of a particular storytelling device, then film narrators definitely don’t deserve their bad reputation. Then again, if the domination of last weekend’s Oscar ceremony by The Artist shows anything, those purely visual filmmaking elements still very much strike the critical fancy, as they should. The simplest and best criterion for judging the effectiveness of narration will always be its facility to complement the moving pictures themselves.

Nathan Pensky is an associate editor at PopMatters and a contributor at Forbes, among various other outlets. He can be found on Tumblr and Twitter as well.



Comments

  • The Winchester says:

    Opening of Dune, with Virginia Madsen (!) fading in and out and telling us everything we need to know.

    • j'accuse! says:

      Sure she's great, but I'm not staying if she's drinking Merlot.

        • j'accuse! says:

          Grazie. Interested in your or anybody's opinion about Blade Runner with and without voice-over. On the one hand, some argue that having the voice-over gives the film more of that future noir feel, while others say it's unnecessary and Ford may have intentionally botched it. I'm undecided.

          • j'accuse! says:

            Last night, I discovered that Ice-T's voice-over in The Other Guys is pretty flippin awesome. Interest of full disclosure, any day I hear Ice-T's is a good day. Unless it's followed up by some tragic event, like being hit by a bus or sitting next to a table with a guy wearing a ballcap at a fancy restaurant when you're celebrating your birthday. Fucker.

  • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

    I resent the voiceover from The Assassination of Jesse James... more than anyone or anything in the annals of narration. Completely useless, and the voice. Oh, the voice. That guy wouldn't be able to hack a bank commercial.

    The cat from that Miranda July movie was pretty dreadful, too. It told an entirely separate story! It contributed nothing! I can't even figure out where that falls in this schema, though maybe that's just attributable to the repressed memory of it all.

  • Capote99 says:

    I thought the narration in "Little Children" was kind of clever.

  • forever1267 says:

    What made "A Simple Plan" turn from a good movie to a fair movie was Bill Paxton's plodding voice-over.

    Totally agree on "Little Children". Like a sociological piece on suburban issues.

  • Jake says:

    What about Malick? His VO is a technique that is anything but lazy. Looking at Badlands or Days of Heaven, you are hearing characters reveal themselves, rather than tell the story.

    I've always hated the adage about narration being a weak storytelling tool. I've always pointed to some of the greatest movies, many of which you have mentioned (like Sunset Blvd. and Taxi Driver), as having great narration. But so often critics dismiss it unnecessarily simply because they have heard the adage before. It's like they're unable to simply evaluate the film and its use of narration because "they've heard" that narration is a screenwriting no no. Like any storytelling technique, if it's done well, it's great. If it's done poorly (which is easy to do) it can be terrible.

    Thanks for another great article.

    Small note, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm not sure Memento has narration as much as you are simply hearing a one sided conversation that Leonard is having over the phone with Joe P while viewing the story. But it's been a while since I've seen it, so maybe I'm just remembering wrong.

    • Hi again, Jake. Thanks so much! And yes, Badlands is one of my absolute favorite movies, and a great, great example of film narration. And you're right about the narration in Memento being told through a phone conversation. It still qualifies as far as I'm concerned, though.

  • Jake says:

    And one other thing, I would actually say that The Royal Tenenbaums contains what can be good narration and bad narration. While the short interjections during the story are quite good (and reminiscent of a novel, whic I think was the idea), the long expository speech at the beginning cheats us when it summarizes a significant part of the family's history by simply stating that there were "two decades of failure, betrayal, and disaster." I can understand summarizing the childhoods of the smart children through narration, but how can you skip how it all went wrong? You spend five minutes telling us all about how brilliant these kids were and then in a single sentence tell us it all went wrong? And then just pick up the story after the family has been pulled apart?

    For me, that is a perfect example of bad narration. Instead of showing us what happened with these characters, you are simply expected to be told that the family has fallen part and believe it.

    All told, it's a good movie. Not my favorite Wes Anderson, but still very good. But it definitely has some flaws and that piece of narration is really at the center of the problem.

  • Edward Wilson says:

    Barry Lyndon. You're welcome.

  • The Cantankerist says:

    Yeah, I wouldn't have picked Tenenbaums, but then I don't think the Lord Of The Rings ones are up to much either. If it's just a shovelful of exposition you wanna feed me, find some more interesting way to do it.

    The best ones tell us far more about the person speaking than about the ostensible topic at hand. Two great Matthew Broderick-related examples: the terrific to-camera stuff in "Ferris" and the four-way voiceoverpalooza of "Election".

  • The Cantankerist says:

    Blade Runner is *way* *way* *way* better without the narration, which seems to have been inserted so that stupid people can catch up. "That was what his threat about the 'little people' meant." Yeah, we know, we just freakin' saw it.

    It only evokes Chandler or Hammett to people who haven't *read* Chandler or Hammett.
    "She slid away from him along the seat but her voice slid away a lot farther than that."
    *That's* Chandler. "Blade Runner" features a very soft-boiled detective by comparison.

    But there's that classic Chandler screenwriting that William Goldman quotes: a middle-aged couple in the lift, a younger woman enters the lift, the man takes off his hat. No words, but everything's said. Without the narration, Blade Runner has parts that... well, they don't quite approach that, but the intention's there.

  • Draybee says:

    I was pleased to see "Sunset Boulevard" mentioned, but leaving "All About Eve" and "Network" out of this article is downright unforgivable.

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      Doesn't the narrator disappear from Network after the introduction? Always seemed like more of a story expedient to me than anything essential.

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