Thursday, March 22, 2012

Confessions of a Voiceover Snob

I just finished reading this article, tweeted by film critic Roger Ebert.  It made me think about something I've harped about on several occasions after seeing a movie that included voiceover or narration. 

I've been a voiceover snob.  Like others mentioned in the article, I've poo-pooed films that use voiceovers or narrators to add to the film.  I say, "Show, don't tell".  I sneer and label the director and screenwriters inadequate to the task of telling a story through the medium of motion pictures.

But after reading that article, I took a second look at my attitude and decided that I've been wrong, at least some of the time.  Not every film with voiceover or narration is using it as the result of bad writing.  

I remind myself that film is not just a visual medium; it's a medium of sound as well.  Or text, if we're talking about silent or films.  Silent films often included explanatory text as well as dialogue in the intertitles.  I love silent movies.  It's never bothered me to read a title card that explains some bit of background.  Why, then, do I criticize  filmmakers for using the auditory version of this technique? 

There are times when the voiceover narration is bad, when it does exactly what I accused it of doing: trying to make up for an otherwise inadequate script (or perhaps an inadequate budget).  But that isn't true in every film.  Take, for example, John Carter, which I saw recently.  The film opens with a voiceover by Mark Strong, explaining a little of what has happened to Mars.  It tells you who the major players are and why such a desolate world can contain the highly developed technological societies John Carter encounters when he travels there.  It's relatively brief and not too detailed.  It's not much different from the famous opening crawl of Star Wars, which for some reason (probably nostalgic fondness) has never provoked my irritation.   John Carter had a more than adequate budget, and a reasonably good quality screenplay.  It would probably have worked just as well without the voiceover, but for audiences who may never have read any of Burroughs' Barsoom books or even heard of them, it contained some helpful information.  Having the characters talk about all that stuff might have been boring, and interrupted the flow of the action.  It's an action movie, after all.  You don't want the characters to stop and have long expository conversations.

There are other times that voiceover is wrong.  When I saw the remake of Conan the Barbarian last year, as soon as I heard Morgan Freeman providing the voiceover at the beginning, I cringed.  Morgan Freeman has become almost too common as a narrator.  His popularity has become a joke.  He's also not in the film.  Perhaps it would have been better to have someone who's in the film do the voiceover.  Making the voiceover script less pompous would have worked better, too.  I doubt anyone went to see that movie who didn't already have some familiarity with Conan.  

But that film aside, I shall stop immediately declaring that any film with voiceover is automatically not as good as it would have been without voiceover.  I shall take each film as it comes and judge the voiceover on its own merits.  Sometimes it will enhance, sometimes it will detract, just like any other stylistic choice.  I shall cease being a voiceover snob forthwith.

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