narration in film: weakness and genius

For awhile, I’ve felt as if narration in film is merely a sign of weakness on the part of the screenwriter. It seems that some of things voiced over were things that they didn’t really want to make into scenes, thus making it a cheap ploy to move the film along. It has always seemed like a cheap way to force the movie out an abstract universe where less and less makes sense and back into the audience’s minds. It’s used to dumb things down–and that’s probably where a lot of my animosity spurs from.

I hate so much when a movie talks down to you, so as to help you along to getting the point of the movie. Even though I know that most people don’t think critically during a film, as if you’re not supposed to contemplate a film as you would a piece of art or theater or a piece of music, it irks me that cinema is a low art. And I’ve been wanting to throw narration under the bus as one of the reasons it is a lower artform than most.

But over the past few days, I’ve been doing some thinking along these lines and I’ve come to the conclusion that, although it can be used to gloss over a scene and reveal a screenwriting weakness, it can also be utilized as a genius way to get into the head of a protagonist.

Take Pi for instance. This movie uses narration to enter into the fucked-up place that is Max’s head. We can see his deterioration but to hear him try to rationalize it (as he tries to do to everything else in the movie), we really only then begin to get the sense of his insanity.

Or Annie Hall. From the very beginning of the movie, we see Woody Allen’s character breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to us, as if we were his therapist and the movie itself is only there to give validity to his statements. Not only that, but the narration begins to have its own scenes, as he and his friends walk around parts of his childhood home as there’s a big dinner going on. It definitely helps it out a lot.

But one movie, as much as it has a place in my heart, that uses narration weakly is the Sandlot. It’s not the most necessary thing in the movie, you could grasp the basic plot without it, and it seems to be only there to clear up things that fall between scenes. I understand that Scotty Smalls loves to talk and thus he’s going to talk to you throughout the movie. But is it necessary? Hell fucking no.

However, the more I begin to think about it, the more narration seems to help a film when done right. With Ghost Dog, the segments from the Hagakure really help with explaining the whole idea of what a samurai does. Jarmusch, the director, is completely aware that American Filmgoers, or at least 92.6% of them, are probably not familiar with the actual ways of the samurai–they know what they learned in eighth grade and not much beyond that. And from that, we can more easily see how Ghost Dog has transmuted these ideas into his life. As a way of solitude within what he does. As a way to find peace in a murderous world.

However, most of the time, narration is not needed. It should be a luxury to see a film with narration because most filmmakers are smart enough to film scenes with great amounts of continuity, enough so that we don’t have to have the main character stop everything and interject with what’s just happened. And some narrated films should be left without the voiceover and allow the movie to organically slip into abstraction.

But, as stated, very few people (maybe a 10% overunder) go to the movies to think and when a big-budget no-thought film slips into abstractions, it suddenly becomes necessary to place a comforting voice into the movie to hold your hand through the whole ordeal. It’s ridiculous, but it makes money and if it don’t make money, it don’t make centsense.

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