When — and How — Great Movie Narration Works
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.