Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A few kind words for narration.

I've read several writers complain about narration in film. The big idea being violated is "Don't say it, show it." Exposition, narration's sneaky second cousin, gets bad mouthed in the same way. If you are the kind of person who watches commentary tracks, you will have heard writers apologizing to actors for any scene in which the actor is forced to give exposition. It's clunky, it slows down the pace, etc. I've never taken a screenwriting class, but I get the feeling people teaching screenwriting hate narration with a white hot hate.

As a person who watches movies but has never made one, let me say a few kind words about narration.

The documentary exclusion: Some of my favorite films are documentaries. Occasionally, a documentary can get away with no narration, like Koyaanisqatsi and Winged Migration, but these are a tiny minority of exceptions to the rule.

The vast majority of documentaries need narration and exposition. This does not make them bad films.

The opening scene narration exclusion: Some really good movies start with a scene of narration. In Citizen Kane, we get a newsreel talking about the life and death of Charles Foster Kane just before some newspaperman is sent on assignment to get more of the story. In L.A. Confidential, it's Danny DeVito reading while he is typing a story for his scandal mag Hush-Hush.

Both of these are really good movies. If you aren't convinced with those two on the list, let me throw in Casablanca, which doesn't even have a clever tie-in reason for the narration.

Sometimes it's the quickest way to set up a story. Nothing wrong with moving the action along.

One of the greatest narrated films of all time: I've already said how much I like Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, but it bears repeating. Some think of it as the first film noir, though I think The Maltese Falcon should be put in the genre as well. Whether it's the first or not, it's one of the best. The movie has a good gimmick for the narration, as it is supposed to be Fred MacMurray confessing his crime into a dictating machine for his colleague Edward G. Robinson to find in the morning. As I pointed out in my first review, it has the line that nicely sums up the entire genre: "I did it for the money. I did it for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman."

A very good modern film with narration: I recently rented The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt as Jesse and Casey Affleck as a member of the last gang assembled by the James brothers (Sam Shepard plays the much older Frank) who kills Jesse because he fears for his life. It has a great cast - Garret Dillahunt, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, Mary Louise Parker - and off-screen narration by Hugh Ross. As for the rule of "Don't say it, show it", this movie shows plenty, with a lot of long close-ups of Pitt, Affleck and Rockwell, who plays Robert Ford's brother Charley, but there's a lot of back story, and the audience wouldn't know it except for the narration.

An under-rated classic with narration: The St. Valentine's Day Massacre from 1967 is not true to the facts of the historical record, but it is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Netflix doesn't think it's worth having around, but you can get it on Amazon.com for a reasonable price. It's directed by Roger Corman and, like all his films, made inexpensively, but it's got a great sixties cast of character actors and narration by one of the best voice actors of all time, Paul Frees. I can't say for sure, but I think Corman may have gone with voice-over narration because people were so used to it from The Untouchables, which was made in the 1960s and was also about the Prohibition era.

The reviews on Amazon are generally good, though they quibble about how little Jason Robards looks like Al Capone and how many details are not historically accurate. I am a little sorry to hear how fast and loose with the facts the movie is, because when Frees in narration says a line like "At 7:30 a.m. on the last day of his life, Albert Weinshank was having an argument with his wife about money." I want to believe it is completely accurate.

As I said, I haven't been able to find this movie on Netflix or at the Oakland Public Library, but even though it's been several years since I've seen it, I can recommend Corman's The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, not in spite of the narration by Paul Frees but because of it.


namastenancy said...

A lot of the movies that you cite, especially the film noir, seamlessly merge image and narration so beautifully that you are carried along with the flow. But good screen writing is a rare art and not one that's current much in evidence. Another movie that I absolutely love is "Out of the Past" with Mitchum's flawed, sleepy eyed anti-hero and Jane Greer as the bad woman who done him wrong and who he can't resist. There's dialogue, there''s narration and there's visuals that are as powerful today as when the movie was made. Thank you for the reminders of all those good movies; I've just added a bunch to my Netflix queue.

Anne said...

Great post, thank you! It's always good to see received opinion questioned.

On another tack, I'd love to hear you expand on this comment: when Frees in narration says a line like "At 7:30 a.m. on the last day of his life, Albert Weinshank was having an argument with his wife about money." I want to believe it is completely accurate.
What is the function of "veracity" in film? Does it give us some kind of licence? And how do we explain our emotional involvement in something that is demonstrably pure fiction? etc etc...(I bet you're yawning already.)

Peregrin said...

If you're just making the argument that there's a time and a place for narration, then yes I agree with you. The main problem that I have with it, is that it is so overrused - and inappropriately so - that in general it should be avoided completely. ONLY the best film makers can get away with it. For the rest it's a cheap and lazy device.

Matty Boy said...

Nancy: I saw Out of the Past on my recent noir immersion effort. I didn't love it as much as you do.

Anne: When the narration is being so precise and also letting the audience in on something the characters are not aware of, it really draws me in. This may be a "Your mileage may vary" kind of thing.

Peregrin: I'm not so sure it's ONLY the best when I give an example of a Roger Corman film in which it works. I'm willing to concede it's over-used, but so are cliches. Most sayings that become cliches did so because they were clever the first time you heard them.

I think every case of narration has to be taken on its own merits.

dguzman said...

Little Big Man is another classic narration film, with the ancient Jack Krabb (sp?) telling his tale to a reporter.