Anyone who has ever studied film is familiar with the various arguments either for or against the use of voice-over in a film. It’s a debate I hadn’t considered seriously in some time, at least not until I revisited the Ulrich Edel film Christiane F. (1982). The voice over in this film, particularly in the film’s opening, is utterly redundant and has probably provided me with sufficient motivation to avoid the device in my own scripts. However, there have been instances where a voice-over has aided in the construction of a film’s atmosphere and context, such as Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven (1978).
The difference in the success of this aesthetic employment is a result of the manner in which the voice-over is scripted. The voice-over in Christiane F. narrates, in the most literal of terms, what is going on within the frame and is therefore redundant. While Malick’s voice-over describes a point of view and events unseen by the camera, and that are simultaneously the subjective observations of a character within the film. But neither Malick’s eloquence nor the information provided by his voice-over is particularly necessary to the success of the film upon further scrutiny. If one were to view Days Of Heaven without the narration, the effect would be the same.
I would argue that in only a few cases is a voice-over like the one described in Days Of Heaven truly an asset to a film. The instances in which the device appears and does not hinder the progression of the film or fill it out with information that is neither vital nor extraordinary seem to come to films that are either highly stylized or whose narrative mandates the use of the device. If one considers Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) for a moment, the benefits of the device quickly become apparent. For it is through the voice-over that Kubrick establishes a literary reflexivity in his film that is indicative not only of the setting of the film’s narrative, but the manner in which the period is so heavily romanticized today. In terms of a utilitarian service provided by the device one need only look to Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) and its subsequent imitators as well as Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). In both instances these two films employ voice-over to signify the subjective recollections of characters in the films, even if at times the characters recollect shared experiences.
That is to say these aforementioned aesthetic parameters I have outlined are restricted only to a discussion of the voice-over device in narrative film. The amount of variety with which the device can be employed in experimental film and video art is almost beyond comprehension and defies the conventions discussed earlier. Take Derek Jarman’s The Last Of England (1986) for instance. The manner in which Jarman utilizes voice-over as well as the content of the voice-over and its myriad of ramifications exemplifies the greater possibilities afforded cinematic expression beyond the rigorous confines of narrative film.