The form and function of film speech

Posts Tagged ‘voiceover’

”Any idiot could write voice-over to explain the thought of a character.”

In film dialogue on June 8, 2012 at 11:22 pm

So says screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox) in the reflexive Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002). In many ways he’s right; by granting the audience direct access to a character’s thoughts, voice-over avoids the need to carefully craft dialogue and performances to convey the same information discreetly. As Mary Ann Doane (1980) notes, it gives the voice ‘the privileged mark of interiority, turning the body ‘inside-out.’ Calls for more subtle dialogue can be seen as a response to the use of voice-over, which as Michel Chion (2006) notes resurged in popularity in the 1990s.

In fact, voice-over is the single aspect of dialogue with a well-developed body of literature. Much has been written about distinctions between the disembodied voice of the documentary voice-over, that of a character-narrator, and a voice-over that only become attached to a visible body at a particular moment. In ‘The Silences of the Voices’, Pascal Bonitzer (1986) associates the embodied voice with subjectivity and a lack of knowledge, while the disembodied voice typically conveys universality and knowledge. In her gendered analysis of the voice, Kaja Silverman (1988) suggests this synchronization is more fully enforced with female characters – that there are ‘very high stakes’ involved in the alignment of the female voice with the female image. Considering the position of the audience, Silverman make a crucial distinction between their relationship with the internal-monologue voice-over, and the voice-over that consciously tells a story. While the latter is ‘undemocratic’, pulling rank on other characters and the viewer, the interior monologue ‘constitutes a form of auditory mastery’ by transforming the private into the public.

VO and Genre

The association of voice-over with particular genres or sub-genres – film noir; horror; adaptation – has encouraged discussion of its stylistic and narrative function. As Bonitzer points out, the marginal anxiety of the disembodied voice can be used for narrative effect. The Scream series cleverly plays on this by having a single, sinister telephone voice attached to the every killer (a voice-altering machine in the first conveniently explains the premise that is used in all four films).

Joan Copjec (1993) is one of many to consider the significance of voice-over to film noir, noting the association between death and speech. The voice-over is frequently attached to a dead narrator; literally in Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) and Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944), metaphorically in Detour (Edger G. Ulmer, 1945), and virtually in Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944).

In his exploration of ‘the image/text relationship,’ W.J. Thomas Mitchell notes that Sunset Boulevard‘s explicit theme is this division between speech and visual representation: A young writer (William Holden) and an ageing screen idol (Gloria Swanson) embody, respectively, the ‘talking pictures’ of new Hollywood and the the silent spectacle of the old. The love-hate relationship between Joe and Norma similarly dramatizes cinema’s conflicted relationship to its parts. We’re still guided through narratives by dead narrators to today. In American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999), Lester reflects on his life  from beyond in grave in the style of Sunset Boulevard, while Desperate Housewives dead narrator serves as a omniscient guardian angel for Wisteria Lane. 

(image source)

Why does it attract so much critical attention?

While dialogue in general is privileged on the soundtrack, the controlling monologue style of voice-over makes it more privileged still. Singled out from the rest of the dialogue, the voice-over’s relationship to the images can be compared with relative ease. With dialogue and sound effects more fully integrated into the filmic discourse, understanding their role can require more attention be paid to each element with which they interact.

Voice-overs that assert their independence from the visual track present themselves as the point of discursive origin. As Silverman notes, it inverts the normal sound/image hierarchy. Because voice-over can alter the consistency of the of the diegetic world it is used reservedly – often a narrator will introduce a film and leave once the audience is oriented. In challenging the primacy of the image, the voice-over urges scholars not normally concerned by dialogue to respond.

As the most overt verbal technique, voice-over draws too much attention to itself to go unanalysed. But, the general anti-dialogue bias lead to blind-spots in models of how films work. Sarah Kozloff stresses that this is a serious consequence, since often it is the interaction of visuals and words that permits themes to be conveyed, empathy to be elicited, and narrative causality to be communicated – ‘Ignoring the role of the words has led to overestimation of what viewers understand from the visuals or the editing alone.

Pascal Bonitzer, ‘The Silences of the Voice,’ trans. Philip Rosen and Marcia Butzel. In Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, edited by Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press; 1986)

Michel Chion, Film, A Sound Art (Coumbia University Press, 2006)

Joan Copjec, Shades of Noir: A Reader (Verso, 1993) 183

Andrew Crisell, Understanding Radio (Methuen, 1986) 138

Mary Ann Doane, ‘The Voice in the Cinema’ (Yale French Studies, 1980) 168

Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (Cornell University Press, 1983)

Brian Henderson, ‘Tense, Mood, and Voice in Film (Notes after Genette)’, Film Quarterly 36: 4 (summer 1983): 4-16

Kozloff, Sarah; Overhearing film dialogue (University of California Press, 2000) 14

Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Indiana University Press, 1988) 46

W.J. Thomas Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (University of Chicago Press, 1995)