Any discussion about the merits of voice over starts, inevitably, with Robert McKee’s famous quote:
And 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.
Then begins a discussion about why he is wrong.
Who doesn’t love secondary sources? The trouble is this quote came from the Robert McKee character in the movie Adaptation, not Robert McKee the guy, and is not really reflective of his nuanced position.
From Robert McKee’s Textbook of Psychoanalysis:
If narration can be removed and the story still stands on its feet well told, then you’ve probably used narration for the only good reason– as counterpoint.
Not exposition or explanation.
Counterpoint is Woody Allen’s greatest gift. If we were to cut the voice-over from HANNAH AND HER SISTERS or HUSBANDS AND WIVES his stories would still be lucid and effective. But why would we? His narration offers wit, ironies, and insights… Voice-over to add nonnarrative counterpoint can be delightful.
So there are times when it would be appropriate, e.g. in Shawshank prison or Stand By Me. Let’s leave those aside and talk about the “lazy” uses of VO.
What interested me about this topic is his McKee’s next sentence, so important he italicized it: “the trend toward using telling narration throughout a film threatens the future of our art.“ The trend. McKee wrote Story in 1997, so he was identifying not just an artistic trend, but a psychological trend: this is how people are thinking about stories nowadays.
Which means: this is how people are learning to think of their own personal narratives: “let me tell you why I did it” instead of
Invite them to bring their own best selves to the ritual, to watch, think, feel, and draw their own best conclusions. Do not put them on your knee as if they were children and “explain” life, for the misuse and overuse of narration is not only slack, it’s patronizing.
Patronizing? Or something else?
As I am not a writer I can’t comment on the merits of voice-over as a technique. But other than laziness, could the presence of voice-over itself be a signal to the audience about the character? Perhaps even an unconscious, “unintentional” signal from the director?
I have a theory that I’m working through, here it is: 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.
I’m starting this from a psychological perspective: when do ordinary people “narrate” their behaviors– when are behaviors not self-explanatory? When they’re doing something they shouldn’t, when they are rationalizing, when they are justifying. When they are being narcissistic. No one ever says, “here’s why I saved that kid from the tiger.” Since the goal of narcissism is to get other people to believe your personal narrative, does voice-over in movies fulfill that same purpose even if the writer/director doesn’t realize that’s what he’s doing?
In other words, having no other information about the story, the moment you hear a voice-over, can you make a prediction about the character and even the plot?
Here are the genre specific predictions based on this understanding of VOs:
- sci-fi: character is pretending (consciously or unconsciously) to be someone he isn’t (deliberate plot reveal, e.g. Blade Runner).
- Action/male dramas: rationalization of violence; promotion of identity (e.g. Fight Club, Dexter, mob movies)
- rom-com/”chick-flicks”/Oscar caliber dramas: justification for irrational or selfish behavior, especially sexual (e.g American Beauty.)
The point here is not to judge the characters as bad. The point is to see if the appeal of it to writers and directors is that it nudges the audience closer to the character’s position in order to rationalize their behaviors; and without this technique, screenwriters would never attempt to tell that story because no one would accept it. Hence VO is not laziness, but the most fundamental part of that film. It is a trick to get you to sympathize more with a character that doesn’t deserve it.
Sex And The City and Grey’s Anatomy: strip away the voice-over and merely watch the behavior, you realize that the lead characters behave selfishly and pettily almost all the time. You may already have thought that, but it’s even worse without the VO. The voice-over explains how this all relates back to an incident with an ex-boyfriend, but without it it looks like she’s getting hysterically dramatic over nothing. Which she is. The voice-over manipulates the audience. But the existence of it is a signal you are going to be manipulated into thinking she’s a better person than she is.
An example of this done intentionally: In Fallen, Denzel Washington plays a detective pursuing what turns out to be a demon jumping from person to person. The opening scene is actually the final scene, in which Denzel is dying, and his voice-over says he will tell us what brought him here and “about the time I almost died.” Then the movie is told in flashback. By my logic of VO, the presence of the VO should tell me, “this guy is not who he seems to be.” The trick, at the end of the movie, is that Denzel actually dies; yet the voice-over continues narrating, which means the voice-over isn’t Denzel the detective, it is Denzel the demon, who has survived.
Other examples or counterexamples? I’m trying to work this out more fully.