Tag Archives: voice over

A Quiet Passion

I saw Terence Davies’ film A Quiet Passion (2016) the other day. It was the most thoroughly engaging cinematic experience I have had in the last year. Davies, true to form, grounds his subject within the context of the family unit and, within this context, examines the effects of the passage of time, of human mortality. Unlike his best known works Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), A Quiet Passion focuses on a historical celebrity (Emily Dickinson, played by Cynthia Nixon) and is set in the United States as opposed to Liverpool.

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A Quiet Passion echoes heavily with the influence of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in its privileging of duration and silence as a means of revealing the interior of characters without relying upon such tired devices as voice-overs. When Davies does employ voice-overs, it is always a recitation of one of Dickinson’s poems as an auditory counterpoint to the visual of the narrative, never as a means of taking the psychological elements of character and perverting it into exposition.

There is also a hint of latter day Robert Bresson to Davies’ sound design in A Quiet Passion, particularly if one recalls Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of Bresson’s Lancelot Of The Lake (1974). If one looks at the scene where Emily Dickinson, her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), and the Wadsworths (Eric Loren and Simone Milsdochter) have tea together one will immediately notice how high the sounds of glasses clinking have been brought up in the mix. These sounds lend a sense of tension to the scene while also making the space more visceral. This tactic prevails throughout A Quiet Passion.

Visually, Davies is at his best in two sequences. First, in showing the passage of time from Emily Dickinson’s adolescence to adulthood via a transformative portrait. Davies seizes the opportunity of each member of the Dickinson family sitting for their portrait as a means of moving the narrative forward in time while also drawing our attention to the technical limitations of 19th century photography and subverting the aesthetic conditions of photography itself. The second sequence is Emily Dickinson’s funeral procession. The unusual perspective born out of unorthodox camera placement, coupled with eerie tracking motions and a detached voice-over lend the scene gravitas without giving way to sentimentality.
This is Terence Davies’ true gift as a filmmaker in my opinion; his ability to construct highly emotive film experiences without ever becoming bogged down by sentimental signifiers or narratives capable of any easy closure. This places Davies within the same vein of filmmaking in terms of sensibilities as John Cassavetes. But unlike Cassavetes, Davies finds the source of his visual language not in social realism or naturalism but within the school of avant-garde formalism. The consistent use of visual tableaus and narrative vignettes are the direct descendants of Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet and Derek Jarman.

-Robert Curry

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Some Ideas About A Filmic Device

The title character shoots up in Ulrich Edel's career defining film.

The title character shoots up in Ulrich Edel’s career defining film.

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.

A still from Malick's second feature, and perhaps his best, Days Of Heaven.

A still from Malick’s second feature, and perhaps his best, Days Of Heaven.

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.

A still from Jarman's The Last Of England, a film composed entirely of the director's unfinished shorts and home movies.

A still from Jarman’s The Last Of England, a film composed entirely of the director’s unfinished shorts and home movies.

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.

-Robert Curry

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Bringing Out The Dead

As with Taxi Driver (1976), screenwriter Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese collaborated on the 1999 film Bringing Out The Dead.  Similarly to Taxi Driver, Bringing Out The Dead follows its male lead as he works the graveyard shift at an unruly job that brings him into contact with the less desirable and criminal element of New York City.  Thematically, Bringing Out The Dead differs from Taxi Driver in that the story of the main character is one of redemption rather than ironic heroism.

The narrative of Bringing Out The Dead, adapted from a novel of the same name by Joe Connelly, follows EMT Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) through 72 hours of his life.  At the start of the film Frank rescues a man suffering from a heart attack, and befriends that man’s daughter Mary (Patricia Arquette).  The majority of the film deals with Frank’s inability to cope with the  “ghosts” of those he was unable to save, particularly a young girl named Rose.  In the 72 hours over which the film takes place, every emergency call better equips Frank to finally forgive himself for being unable to save Rose’s life.  What Frank learns is that to save someone does not mean to physically keep them alive, that some people prefer death.  Frank’s enlightenment prompts him to unplug Mary’s father from life support, killing him.

What the audience learns of Frank’s internal struggle is conveyed almost exclusively in voice over monologue, a device perfected in this manner by Scorsese and Schrader in Taxi DriverBringing Out The Dead marks an innovation in the implementing of this device by including illustrative images to couple Frank’s voice over.  For instance, when Frank’s voice over mentions the “ghosts” their faces materialize on passers by who appeared differently moments ago.  This effect coupled with psychologically reflective lighting scenarios make Bringing Out The Dead far more expressionistic than Taxi Driver.

Reinforcing the expressionistic tendencies of Bringing Out The Dead is the inclusion of a drugged out fantasy sequence that takes place entirely in Frank’s mind.  This sequence utilizes fast motion, slow motion, green screen, cross-over dissolves, super imposition and a slew of other more subtle effects to visually represent Frank’s subconscious struggle.  Though each of the parts that make Bringing Out The Dead expressionistic are not on their own unique or referential to any particular stylistic tendency, the sum of these parts demand the consideration of expressionism in Bringing Out The Dead.

Despite the fanaticism of Bringing Out The Dead, no matter how carefully Scorsese disguises it with his trademark gritty realism, Schrader’s script and the final film are of a decidedly formal quality.  Consider that each act of the film is marked by a new partner for Frank to go out on call with.  Each of Frank’s partner’s is representative of a particular quality that Frank must conquer or come to terms within him.  The first of these partners is Larry (John Goodman), who advocates a certain level of ignorance to separate his home life with his family from the hostile environment of his work place.  Secondly is Marcus (Ving Rhames), who represents a renewed faith and a trust in a higher power.  Finally, there is the violent man of action Tom (Tom Sizemore), who appears to have forsaken both faith and family values to join the anarchistic world that he patrols every night.

Each of Frank’s partner’s spiritual or moral choices is rejected by Frank.  Frank is too compassionate to revel in the mayhem like Tom, too skeptical to turn to Jesus as Marcus did, and too alone to find any structure in a family as Larry had.  What Frank ultimately does is accept the conditions of his life.  Upon close analysis, the thing that all of Frank’s partners have in common is their desire to escape, the same desire that Frank possesses at the start of the film.  However, Frank cannot find redemption in escaping the cruelty of life, but only in confronting it.  Frank has to acknowledge that his job does not always put him on the side of his patients, that at times what his patients wish flies in the face of what his job requires him to do.

The spiritual crisis at the heart of Bringing Out The Dead and Taxi Driver are remarkably similar.  Yet, some twenty years after Taxi Driver, the resolution of this conflict or crisis appears to be much more hopeful.  Part of this hopefulness is a by-product of the fantasy element inherent in expressionism; the other is in the lack of Frank’s moral ambiguity.  Taxi Driver’s Travis (Robert DeNiro) always appeared equally threatening and compassionate no matter what his physical actions were, thus rendering him ambiguous.  Frank on the other hand is good throughout.  Whenever he is tempted to stray, Frank returns to his course adhering to his own moral code.  Where actual characters are concerned, Frank is much more similar to Willem DaFoe’s Jesus Christ in Schrader and Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988) than he is to Travis Bickle.  In the visual arena, Bringing Out The Dead’s last shot is of Mary holding Frank as he sleeps (Arquette and Cage were married at the time).  This simple image is indicative of the Hollywood cliché’ “boy gets girl” but also recreates the image of Mary cradling Christ’s dead body after the crucifixion.  This not only reinforces the similarity of Frank’s character to Jesus Christ (in the Scorsese film), but also suggests some sort of eminent rebirth.

Putting Bringing Out The Dead in the context of Martin Scorsese’s entire career it soon becomes evident that his films are rarely as hopeful as this, particularly when examining his films based in New York.  The clearly pointed moral structure of Bringing Out The Dead in and of itself is evidence of a new direction in the work of Scorsese.  Prior films dealt with moral ambiguity or disillusionment of one sort or another.  Perhaps the pointedness of Bringing Out The Dead’s moral message isn’t a product of Scorsese at all, but of Paul Schrader.  This hypothesis seems much more likely since Schrader’s films as a director each exhibit a clear and decided moral stance.

Regardless of which author of the film is responsible for what aspect of the film, Bringing Out The Dead remains, in my mind, Scorsese’s last truly innovative piece of movie making.  Thinking of his more recent films like Gangs Of New York, The Aviator, The Departed or Shutter Island, I recall only pomposity coupled with monotony.  These seem to be the symptoms of popular cinema today, so it’s nice to escape back to when filmmakers like Martin Scorsese were still compelling.

-Robert Curry

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