Invisible Storytellers: Voice-over Narration in American Fiction Film

Invisible Storytellers: Voice-over Narration in American Fiction Film

Invisible Storytellers: Voice-over Narration in American Fiction Film

Invisible Storytellers: Voice-over Narration in American Fiction Film

Synopsis

Through examples from films such as How Green Was My Valley, All About Eve, The Naked City, and Barry Lyndon, Sarah Kozloff examines and analyzes voice-over narration. She refutes the assumptions that words should only play a minimal role in film, that "showing" is superior to "telling," or that the technique is inescapably authoritarian (the "voice of god"). She questions the common conception that voice-over is a literary technique by tracing its origins in the silent era and by highlighting the influence of radio, documentaries, and television. She explores how first-person or third-person narration really affects a film, in terms of genre conventions, viewer identification, time and nostalgia, subjectivity, and reliability. In conclusion she argues that voice-over increases film's potential for intimacy and sophisticated irony.

Excerpt

“Let me tell you a story,” each narrative film seems to offer silently as its opening frames hit the screen: “It all started this way …”

Behind every film we sense a narrating “voice,” a master-of-ceremonies figure that presents and controls the text. But in many cases we also hear from off-screen a human voice—a man, woman, or child who explicitly narrates all or part of the story we are about to witness. in Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), an unseen voice (Walter Brennan) remarks:

You see, the story of the Red River D. started this way. Along about August
of 1851 Tom Dunson and me left St. Louie and joined a wagon train headed for
Californy. After about three weeks on the trail we was to the northern border of
Texas …

This prototypical “old-timer” speaks to us as if we were huddled around a campfire on a lonely prairie, not a flickering screen in our neighborhood theater.

Cinematic storytelling is one of the youngest, most technologically dependent, and most expensive modes of narration; oral storytelling, the most ancient, fundamental, and widely accessible. in films with voice-over narration the older form has been superimposed on top of the newer. “Narrated” films are hybrids—almost implying a mixture of centuries and cultures—halfretrograde, half-pathbreaking, half-dissembling, half-forthright, they call upon the viewer to assume complex, if not contradictory, positions. Adding voice-over narration to a film creates a fascinating dance between pose and actuality, word and image, narration and drama, voice and “voice.”

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