Thursday, August 16, 2007

Top 10: Voice-over


Voice-over is often used to gloss over narrative problems or water a challenging film down in the name of accessibility (Blade Runner being the most notable example of the latter). But like any cinematic device, when placed in the hands of talented filmmakers, voice-over can be transformed from something familiar into something we've never quite seen (or heard before).

1. Days of Heaven Terrence Malick's four films have all employed voice-over to great effect, the disconnected thoughts of characters in The Thin Red Line and The New World enhancing those films' meditative tones, and Sissy Spacek's rambling, disconnected thoughts in Badlands achieve a sort of banal poetry. In Days of Heaven, Malick presents the tragic turn-of-the-century love story from the point of view of the protagonist's preteen sister. First-time film actress Linda Manz narrates in a flat, unaffected manner that perfectly compliments her character, who is inarticulate but perceptive about the lives of those far older than her. Malick has been criticized for emotionally distancing his audience from the story; in fact, the narrator's guileless, wide-eyed memories draw us directly into the film's devastatingly ephemeral heart.

2. A Clockwork Orange Stanley Kubrick once called this a "Who do you root for?" movie, and the director frequently used voice-over to confound his audience's expectations. The matter-of-fact, dryly statistical narrator in The Killing reduces the film's heist down to a shopping list of times, amounts, and other quantities, while the cruel storyteller of Barry Lyndon undercuts the characters' actions and dreams with savage irony (a device used in recent films like Dogville and Little Children). In both Lolita and A Clockwork Orange, the protagonists relate their stories with eloquence and wit, confusing our loyalties by causing us to sympathize with characters who do reprehensible things. A Clockwork Orange is particularly brilliant in this respect - Malcolm McDowell is charasmatic and strangely sexy as the young hooligan Alex, who recounts his evenings spent raping and pillaging with great gusto and his subsequent arrest and reconditioning with terrible sorrow. Kubrick asks us to sympathize with the devil in order to convey the film's philosophical message; the technique is no doubt manipulative, but it's also sickly hilarious and frequently imitated (see also: Trainspotting and American Psycho).

3. Taxi Driver Like A Clockwork Orange, the voice-over in Taxi Driver is meant to align us with a difficult character. But where Kubrick's aim was satire, Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader want us to understand Travis Bickle. As he prowls the city streets, seething with contempt for the decaying world around him, Robert DeNiro's narrative gives voice to fears, obsessions, and compulsions that, while extreme, are also all too recognizable. As Travis' inexpressive rage transforms into brutal violence, the scariest implication is that his madness is, somehow, our own.

4. Sunset Boulevard Has there ever been a filmmaker more joyously clever than Billy Wilder? Sunset Boulevard contains his wittiest device, the story of a murder recounted by the corpse. It's a concet that would prove popular - American Beauty, in particular, used it to wonderful effect - but in Sunset Boulevard, it's more than a plot device. Wilder's vision of Hollywood as a cemetary, a place where the long-forgotten dwell, is complimented by poor Joe Gillis' narration from beyond the grave. It's a perfectly acidic vision of the dark side of a city devoted to attaining cinematic immortality.

5. To Kill a Mockingbird The voice-over in Robert Mulligan's adaptation of Harper Lee's book has been frequently imitated over the years to lesser effect. The imitators attempt to mimic the unpretentious Southern charm of an adult Scout's memories of her youth, but they miss the eerier moments, the ghostly intimations of doom, and the bitter nature of an adult's memories of the moment she stepped into a world of absurd intolerance. There's nothing saccharine about the narrative - like the rest of the film, it's possessed with a hauntingly delicate soul that is ultimately heartbreaking.

6. Cries and Whispers One of Ingmar Bergman's best films, Cries and Whispers is bathed in red, a color that Bergman said he imagined the inside of the soul to be. And Cries and Whispers is a film composed of interiors, both literally and through the diary entries of the dying Agnes (Harriet Andersson). Agnes' memories of her life and her emotionally remote sisters are almost impossibly sad, laced with regret, confusion, and fear. All the more stunning that Cries and Whispers ends with Agnes' happiest memory, and Bergman, for once, grants his storyteller a moment of peace (for more on the ending, go here).

7. The Postman Always Rings Twice Film noir is littered with hapless schmoes who become putty in the hands of a smarter, more calculating woman. Never was this more perfectly realized than in the 1946 version of James M. Cain's novel. John Garfield's Frank recounts his torrid, deadly affair with Cora (Lana Turner) in a voice-over filled with uncertainty (Frank's most-used phrase is "I guess"), jealously and insecurity. It's not only good pulp, it's a sharp examination of the tortured male psyche.

8. The Royal Tenenbaums The narration in the story of a family of geniuses has the mannered, matter-of-fact style of a novel one might find in the young-adult section of the library (it's particularly reminiscent of Salinger, whose Franny and Zooey Wes Anderson owes a great debt to). Alec Baldwin's solemn, matter-of-fact delivery is a hilarious compliment to the film's deadpan tone and the eternal adolescence of the Tenenbaums.

9. The Big Lebowski The Coens often have a great deal of fun with voice-over, from Nicolas Cage's hayseed philosopher in Raising Arizona (Ebert panned the film for the narration, but I adore it) to Billy Bob Thorton's apology for his long-windedness ("They're paying me by the word") at the end of The Man Who Wasn't There. Best of all is The Big Lebowski, the story of a burnt-out bowling aficionado-turned-amateur detective as told by a folksy, sarsaparilla-swilling cowboy who may also be God. But there I go, ramblin' again...

10. Adaptation Like many of the films on this list, Adaptation does a fine job of using voice-over to illustrate its characters' unspoken fears and desires. But the moment that really sets Adaptation apart occurs when Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is attending one of Robert McKee's famous screenwriting seminars; as Kaufman excoriates himself in voiceover for looking for easy answers, his thoughts are interrupted by McKee (Brian Cox), who warns, "God help you if you ever use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you! That's flaccid, sloppy writing!" From that point on in the film, Kaufman's inner voice is silent.


Paul C. said...

As soon as I saw the title of the post, the first thing I thought was, "he better have picked Days of Heaven." Lo and behold...

I'm also partial to your #3 pick, since as you said it does such a good job getting us on the side of a psychopath. The line that's always clinched it for me is, "lonliness follows me everywhere. In bars, in cars, in houses, in streets, in shops. There's no escape- I'm God's lonely man." I think that Scorsese may be one of the few directors currently working that has consistently used voiceover narration well- I can see GoodFellas, The Age of Innocence or Bringing Out the Dead making this list.

As for Kubrick, I'm partial to the chilly, 20/20 hindsight of Barry Lyndon. Just the scene of Brian on the horse- brrrrrrr.

Your comments on Raising Arizona made me think that Ebert was much too harsh on the movie. It's hardly one of my favorites of theirs, but a movie with a line like "Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase" is impossible to hate.

Some other possibilities:

Band of Outsiders- the granddaddy of the dispassionate, literary narration that could later be found in everything from Amelie to Y Tu Mama Tambien, as well as much of Truffaut's later career.

Dogville- a similar feel to Lyndon but if anything it's even more clinical. Plus basking in John Hurt's timbre for three hours is always a pleasure.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang- roughly half the laughs that this movie contains can be found in Downey's narration. And for a movie this hilarious, that's saying something.

The Incredible Shrinking Man- what might otherwise merely be a superlative casualty-of-science thriller becomes something more profound as a result of the voiceover, which becomes thoughtful near the end when the hero contemplates his- and the human race's- place in the universe.

The Human Vapor- here is the rare foreign film that was actually improved by an English-language dub. The American distributors took a sci-fi epic about a man who can assume gaseous form and added a surprisingly poetic English voiceover, in which the increasingly-unhinged hero becomes philosophical about his fate and the motivations behind his violence. A full decade and a half before Taxi Driver, the English dub of The Human Vapor explored the psyche of a killer, although it took Scorsese, Schrader, and DeNiro to elicit sympathy for one.

Oh, and thanks for the shout-out in the Cries and Whispers piec.

Anonymous said...

This was a great list, Andrew. I haven't seen Days of Heaven in years and really should give it another try, in spite of the fact that Malick has never been one of my favorite directors.

The narration for Apocalypse Now and Fight Club were also brilliantly scripted and recorded. I can't imagine either film being as great without those points of view.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

On the other hand, as soon as I saw the list, I thought, he better have The Magnificent Ambersons... and you didn't! Sacrilege!

Though I do think most of your choices are spot-on (Cries, Days, Sunset Blvd, Tenenbaums) and you build a solid case for the others also. I'd replace Postman with Double Indemnity though.

Anonymous said...

Morgan Freeman should have been on here for "The Shawshank Redemption".

Andrew Bemis said...

I limited myself to one film per director, otherwise the list would have been half Kubrick and Scorsese. It was really a toss-up between Barry Lyndon and ACO, and I went for the latter mostly because I just wrote about Mr. Barry. Great alternate choices - I still need to see Band of Outsiders (I know) and The Magnificent Seven, and The Human Vapor sounds intriguing. As for Morgan Freeman's voice-over, it is, like all aspects of The Shawshank Redemption, very good but overpraised to the point of an almost religious fervor.

Anonymous said...

Great list! Really helped me with some research I had to do!

Anonymous said...

Goodfellas should have been on this list, particularly the moment when the shot shows Ray Liotta's entire narration is contained within the court scene.

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