August 30, 2008

Third-person narration done right

A couple of days ago, I saw Woody Allen's latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I feel that this film should be taught in film schools - as an example of every single thing not to do. For starters...the title? Um, yeah, it's the two main characters and the setting. It's also hopelessly out of touch - "oh, these crazy young folk and their sexual escapades! They're all bicurious and unfaithful!" It's riddled with tired stereotypes and generalizations - Americans are uptight, conservative, and perpetually dissatisfied! Spanish people are tempestuous and passionate, and are constantly either stabbing or fucking each other! One reviewer astutely pointed out that this film leaves you hungering not for a sequel, but for a prequel - Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz arguing in Spanish and alluding to their former love affair give hints of the movie I would prefer to see. But this film's worst offense, by far, is the voiceover narration.


Ask anyone who's studied film for three or more minutes and they can tell you that one of the cardinal rules of filmmaking is "show, don't tell." Don't have a character say "I am so sad right now!" - have them cry instead. Narration can be a very tricky thing to master - you shouldn't do it unless there's a concrete reason. Third-person narration in particular is near impossible to pull off, because it lacks the personal connection to the story gained from one of the characters narrating in first person. It can't just be a crutch. I think great cinema is achieved when it doesn't take very much to convey a lot. When one look on an actor's face says it all.

Well, in VCB, the actors' looks have to say mostly everything, because the narration renders them useless. The movie is like an audiobook with pictures. One of the opening shots has Vicky and Cristina, played by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, sitting in the back of a taxi. The narrator spills out their life stories, values, likes, dislikes, habits, and desires in one fell swoop while the two talented actresses sit there and stare out the window. WTF?! Don't just have a random voice saying "Vicky was conservative and traditional in matters of love, while Cristina was adventurous and free-spirited" (or whatever they said to that effect) - have Vicky on the phone with her man from back home while Cristina flirts with the cab driver. Something! It's so patronizing that it's offensive.

Not only was the voiceover patronizing, it was redundant. Long ago, it became cinematically accepted for characters to do several things in a montage sequence without painstaking explanation. Two characters say "we're going to have a fun day!" Then they go shopping, get ice cream, see a movie, go dancing, walk through the park, etc. These can all happen in rapid succession without someone stopping to clarify everything they're doing. Woody apparently missed this memo, because shots of the characters going to a bakery and a sculpture garden are accompanied by that goddamn voice saying "Then they went to a local bakery and sampled candies and sweets. Then they went to see a sculpture and Vicky thought it was beautiful." Those lines are as close to verbatim as I can remember them. It's like a slideshow of someone's vacation.

So as a favor to Woody, who apparently does not know any of this, I will provide some legitimate and creative reasons to employ third-person voiceover narration as a cinematic device, and some filmic examples of each.

1. To lend an epic nature to the proceedings
Successful examples: The Big Lebowski (1998), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
At their cores, Lebowski is just a movie about a Los Angeles slacker embroiled in a kidnapping mystery, and Anchorman is a silly story about a newscaster. But by employing a booming voice to set up their stories, The Dude and Ron Burgundy
become heroic men of their times. Another byproduct of this faux-epic setup is, unsurprisingly, humor.
Excerpt: "
And in San Diego, one anchorman was more man then the rest. His name was Ron Burgundy. He was like a god walking amongst mere mortals. He had a voice that could make a wolverine purr and suits so fine they made Sinatra look like a hobo. In other words, Ron Burgundy was the balls." -- Anchorman
Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's the Dude." -- Lebowski

2. To establish a thematic context
Successful examples: Amelie (2001), Magnolia (1999)
These two films are both largely about the interconnectedness of people, so the narration talks about events that may not pertain directly to the main narrative - but that's exactly the point.
Excerpt: "
On September 3rd 1973, at 6:28pm and 32 seconds, a bluebottle fly capable of 14,670 wing beats a minute landed on Rue St Vincent, Montmartre. At the same moment, on a restaurant terrace nearby, the wind magically made two glasses dance unseen on a tablecloth. Meanwhile, in a 5th-floor flat, 28 Avenue Trudaine, Paris 9, returning from his best friend's funeral, Eugène Colère erased his name from his address book. At the same moment, a sperm with one X chromosome, belonging to Raphaël Poulain, made a dash for an egg in his wife Amandine. Nine months later, Amélie Poulain was born." -- Amelie
(after noting several historical coincidences) "
And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just 'Something That Happened.' This cannot be 'One of Those Things...' This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can't. This was not just a matter of chance. Ohhhh. These strange things happen all the time." -- Magnolia

3. Expressing a character's thoughts that, no matter how talented the actor, they couldn't express themselves
Successful example: Little Children (2006)
A good actor can display a myriad of emotions. He or she can give countless different readings of a line. But there are subtler trains of thought that can't be conveyed any other way. As talented as Kate Winslet is, how else could she communicate the train of though below? Besides, a lot of the source material from Tom Perrotta's novel was probably just too good not to include.
Excerpt: "She didn't feel shame or guilt, only a sense of profound disorientation, as if she had been kidnapped by aliens, and then released, unharmed, a few hours later."
"Sarah was short, and boyish - and had eyebrows that were thicker than Brad thought necessary." -- Little Children

4. To pack in a lot of backstory about a character
Successful examples: The Royal Tenenbaums (2002), Network (1976)
I know I said earlier that the voiceover in VCB explaining the characters' lives away was unnecessary. However, that was because it was discussing their traits and characteristics, which should be able to come out in their performances. At the beginning of the two films listed above, there's just some narrative information that needs to get out there, and fast. Also, when your narrator is Alec Baldwin, it's hardly ever superfluous.
Excerpts: "In the sixth grade, he went into business, breeding dalmatian mice, which he sold to a pet shop in Little Tokyo. He started buying real estate in his early teens and seemed to have an almost preternatural understanding of international finance." -- Tenenbaums
"This story is about Howard Beale, the acclaimed news anchorman on UBS T.V. In this time, however, he was a mandarin of television with a HUT rating of 16 and a 28 audience share. In 1969, however, his fortunes began to decline. He fell to a 22 share. The following year, his wife died, and he was left a childless widower with an 8 rating and a 12 share. He became morose and isolated, started to drink heavily, and on September 22, 1975, he was fired, effective in two weeks." -- Network

5. To set up a chronology that might otherwise be unclear
Successful example: The Killing (1956)
Kubrick's early film received initial criticism for its non-linear account of a robbery, which was cited as confusing. However, that same element holds up as a strong point today. Without the voice specifying what time it was, the full impact of the overlapping storylines might not have been achieved. Interestingly, though, the narration was added at the studio's insistence and Kubrick hated the idea.
Excerpt: "An hour earlier that same afternoon, in another part of the city, Patrolman First Class Randy Kennan had some personal business to attend to."

6. When the source material is a widely-known classic and people will be pissed if it isn't included
Successful examples: movies adapted from Dr. Seuss or Shakespeare
Could you imagine a Dr. Seuss movie without the delightfully nonsensical rhymes of the corresponding book, read in voiceover by some narrator with a twinkle in his eye? Or how about a Romeo and Juliet adaptation (one that uses the original language) where the famous opening is just hacked off? It simply can't be done. Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996) added a twist by having that opening read as a newscast, but it was still there.
Excerpts: "Two households, both alike in dignity / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean..." -- any decent R+J adaptation
"And so, all ended well for both Horton and Who's, and for all in the jungle, even kangaroos. So let that be a lesson to one and to all; a person is a person, no matter how small." -- Horton Hears a Who (2008)

What other movies do third-person narration right - or horribly wrong?


Anonymous said...

I can't think of any others, but I'm glad you mentioned Amelie. I adore the narration for that one! Great article overall.

Anonymous said...

As soon as I saw the title of your post, I immediately thought of the brilliant moment in Adaptation when Charlie Kaufman's character sits through a screenwriting and the instructor yells to the class, "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 cannot stand voice-over. It almost single handedly ruins a movie. I think I can tolerate about half of your examples, with The Royal Tenenbaums voice-over being probably the most entertaining.

Anonymous said...

I think the worst example is Grey's Anatomy, where the voice over is almost enough to ruin the show.
Also Sex and the City, where the voice over DOES ruin the show.Carrie's column has to be the worst written thing in history.

Michael said...

BRAVO ! Fascinating post ! Very interesting !

Scott Nye said...

Interestingly, I actually thought the narration in LITTLE CHILDREN hindered the film as much as the narration in VCB did for that. Sure, LITTLE CHILDREN dug a little deeper, but it was all basically stuff that should have been eliminated at the screenwriting stage, and I couldn't help but feel it was left in because the author had a hand in the adaptation.

BARRY LYNDON is, far and away, the best use of third-person narration I've ever seen. It improves the film dramatically, adding humor and occasionally insight, removing us from the action exactly as far as Kubrick wants us, so that in the end, Barry's story seems less tragic than it does ironic. It sounds boring, but never have I been so involved in a film that seems designed to be uninvolving.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Funnily enough, I found this while taking a break off from watching Network!

LordMacGregor said...

Very interessting post.
I thought that Lord of War voiceover was ok.
And as joeyhegele mention Adaptation was very good showing that voiceover are most of the time a bad idea.
Haven't seen Vicky Christina Barcelona but I'm pretty reluctant now.

xlpharmacy reviews said...

It is for sure a great post, very informative and straight to the point.

Andrew said...

I disagree with assessment of Little Children. I feel the narration takes away from the experience. It doesn't expand on the story or the characters at all. It just reiterated what we just watched from the previous scene. It decides for the viewer what the characters are actually feeling instead of letting us (the audience) decide for ourselves. I feel I could pick up the broad stokes of the character's emotion because Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly are great actors. And at the very end of the movie, the narrator goes and tells the audience the whole moral of the story, which should NEVER be done in a movie. It limits what the audience can take away from the film and is sort of insulting to the audience by saying, "Here's the lesson to take from this movie in case you were too stupid to pick it up." I'd say the best example of omniscient narration that reminds me of Little Children would be Y Tu Mama Tambien. It adds just the right amount of a character's internal monologue and tells the audience things they really couldn't have picked up otherwise.