The Torch: In the crux – voice-over narration
They say it’s all in the picture, but is it, really? Imagine a documentary with the sound switched off â€“ what will it tell you? Even the best in photo-journalism is utterly dependent on some form of contextualisation, a heading, an introductory paragraph or a line of commentary to allow the random onlooker flipping through a magazine to make sense of the pictures.
And honestly, on those rare occasions of spontaneous enlightenment or instant recognition, any form of understanding comes in words: words you provide yourself, through analogies or reflections, substituted explanations or a text remembered.
Just as any form of interaction with images involves an element of reading one way or another, the visual realm is intrinsically connected and inextricably respondent to all that defines the textual; in its essence and the many operative conjectures it works on your reason.
What do basic vocabulary such as “visual grammar” and “the language of film” and verdicts such as “hypnotic” or “truly poetic”, which figure prominently in more ambitious reviews, actually mean. They are taken for granted as seemingly common knowledge and fitting decorum, where naming tries to pass for analysis, and you hardly ever challenge what’s actually being said, or do you? As far as I am concerned, big words don’t necessarily make for big insights.
This brings me right to the heart of the matter, namely the question what exactly is being added, quality-wise, to a film by voice-over narration ( v.o.n.), by having someone speak “into” the picture?
I firmly believe that there are a plentitude of reasons for including v.o.n. in your film, and many good ones among them. But as always where art and creativity are concerned, striking the right balance is the key, and therein lies the art. So here are the options – and the pitfalls when thinking about adding this ingredient to your overall composition.
1. The missing link problem: in order to fill in a gap in the plot, voice-over narration can be used to provide a story-line connection that for whatever reason cannot be included in the film itself. But beware, for you’re not only telling people what they need to know, you’re telling them in effect that something important is missing here. No such transition can compete with a seamlessness that is the pinnacle of perfection to any film, beauty as the medium demands it.
2. The assumed evidence of things unseen: voice-over narration may seem a handy tool to put emphasis on certain complexities of human relations, a character’s ambivalent motivation or a symptomatic twist to the story, as it may provide additional depth and background to these. But be assured, there are more elegant and subtle ways to achieve all this, some can be found in stage productions, some even in the history of film. I consider this usage of v.o.n. a form of betrayal and a capitulation, and hope that any director should be inspired to their work precisely because they believe it is images that most convincingly tell their tale.
3. The pacing patch: as an excuse for excessive v.o.n., the pacing of a film is often cited as necessitating such a summarisation through the push of the fast-forward button. Again, I wouldn’t buy into this too quickly, as it reeks too much of film-school-cleverness and is a most superfluous foregrounding of the directorial effort. I think we all have our sore recollections of such artsy pieces of film that are a thesis paper rather than a mature and credible product of original creativity.
4.The save-me-time-and-money technique: true, a voice-over allows you a short-cut through the financial and logistic jungle which threatens to consume most every independent, tight-budget production, by verbally relaying those parts of your drama which were simply unaffordable. Think twice: would you really enjoy a panoramic view of the most impressive mountain range, which shows the nether regions only and systematically blanks out your every summit?
5. The message in the bottle: you try to make a point about something you want to share, a message to disseminate among your contemporaries, and what better way to secure this than to distill the essence and serve your best conclusions in complementing lines. How embarrassing, really, to resort to supra-fictional accounting, not to relay the issue from within the film but by a voice so unassailable and so remote, it doesn’t bring you nearer to the centre of the narrative – but so much closer to the end of cinematic fiction.
6. The “consider this” fallacy: a voice-over as an add-on is a more than double-edged sword where amending a theme is concerned. As anyone familiar with scriptwriting knows, being novelistic in this will almost guarantee eventual failure. The literal element of any v.o.n. brings a conflicting set of standards to define the film’s textual and visual capacity. It adds water to the wine, which is the visual strength of a movie, and in most cases it will remain an undigested outcropping to the imaginary entity you try to create.
To end a sad story on a positive note, there are indeed some good examples to prove that a voice-over is not synonymous with a failed movie but can in fact sensibly contribute to its impact on the audience. Take Jean-Jacques Annaud, who does almost his entire storytelling through voice-over narration but hardly ever bores you. That is if you’re into films that not only address the big issues but are also outspoken about it and devise some illustrating pictures to go along. And in his case, what’s so special about the way he makes his voice-overs functional elements in their own right is that they are structural components in themselves, slowing down the pace where needed and offering some space for an emotional build-up to settle in and establish itself.
And then there are such talented directors as Apichatpong Weerasethakul for one, who in his most recent film “Syndromes and a Century” was again bold enough to rely on his pictures alone, notwithstanding the challenge this presents to the viewer, thus creating a luring appeal that is spellbinding and fascinating to watch, truly “hypnotic”.
Finally, on whether in the medium of film something like a “poetic vision” can be realised by adding voice-over to a narrative: poetry is the higher precision of ambiguity that can be attained only within the framework of one medium. It is conceivable only as artful play upon the given set of rules as their innate requirements would fully contain. In this sense, Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave” is poetry in marble, a sculpture as it is most poetically devised within one block of stone that defines the work but cannot confine the art, because the idea transcends all the material restrictions. My point is adamant and simple: let your images speak, don’t comment on your film. Challenge your viewers, don’t underestimate their capacity to read a film literally visually.