Friday, July 11, 2008


God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. It's flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.--Brian Cox, "Adaptation"

While over-analyzing WALL-E with some friends last night, I suddenly hit on a heretofore unmentioned point of bold genius in its creation--it has no voice-over narration.

Since viewing "Adaptation," voice-over narratives have bugged me. I ask myself, "could I understand what is going on in this film without the voice-over?" The answer is almost always "yes." And when the answer is "no," it is because the voice-over does not make sense with what is on the screen. I think to myself, if that is what we are supposed to think is going on, then the film-maker and screenwriter need to step back and rethink some creative decisions.

"A.I." is a perfect example of unnecessary voice-over. Steven Speilberg is a master visual story teller. If you aren't following, then a narrator will not help. David is at the bottom of the ocean staring at the Blue lady, time is passing, and all the visuals are of silent, lonely, blue, reverence. On top of this a narrator is droning on and on and on and oh-my-god-will-you-shut-up-already. Of course, "Blade Runner" is the most famous example of unnecessary voice-over. On the other hand, "Perfume" is a fairly mysterious story with a mystifying ending. The narrator is telling the audience what we are viewing, but I am not convinced. I recall thinking that, if I am supposed to buy what the narrator says is happening, then we need to back up 60 minutes and add in a few more elements to lead the film's thesis to this conclusion.

Back to WALL-E.

People are speculating whether or not it could earn a "Best Picture" Oscar. Probably not, but I would give them one based simply on the decision not to use voice-over. As I said, this film has very little dialog around the central plot of WALL-E's relationship with Eve. We have to understand what is going on from the action, which is pretty easy for an adult, or even an older child. But I would bet the temptation to use voice-over narration was strong. I can hear it now, a soft baritone voice prattling on and on in soothing tones about how WALL-E wishes more than anything that he had someone to just hold his hand. Kudos to the creators for not doing it. Kudos for doing the more difficult work of giving us plot, back-story, and WALL-E's and Eve's inner life with clever and well-crafted visual elements. There are a few times when a well-place newspaper or holoscreen is obviously there just to catch me up, but these are not nearly as interfering as a narrator. I would love to know if voice-over was suggested or debated.

All of that being said, the DVD could maybe use a voiced-over option for the very young viewer. There are themes that I would like David (my son, not the "boy" from A.I.) to be a bit more aware of and the voice-over could help him along. Fortunately, he will not suffer in his life from a shortage of media extolling the pleasures of hand-holding.

later, silent film fans.

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