I was watching The Bank Job yesterday. You know the one with Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows. It’s a classic heist picture. How many of these have we seen? Rififi, Heist, Heat, Sexy Beast, Reservoir Dogs, The Score, The Italian Job, tons. This is a genre that just never gets tired.
Or so I thought. In fact, there are a couple of moments when I thought to myself "can’t we just take this as read, please?" For instance, the lads gather their "bank heist equipment" and start working on the "bank heist tunnel," and you think to yourself, "Got it. Got it. Let’s move on."
Normally, we soak the details up. And the CSI franchise has us fascinated with scientific apparati and technical processes. Normally, this is (mysteriously) absorbing. But in this case, it was a little tedious. I wasn’t sure I really needed to see the van racing through the streets of London.
Clearly, TV and movies are predicated on taking things as read. I mean, if The Bank Job were obliged to offer a record of all of the events and people that let up to that bank job (a true story, apparently), it would take many hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours of film. (Not to mention the agony it would bring to philosophically minded film makers, with the scrupulous ones building out the back story until we had exhaustive accounts of British politics and banking. And no one wants that, I think we can agree of that.)
So taking things as read is an essential part of the film maker’s craft. TV and movies are dedicated to giving us only the "good parts," the parts that draw us into the film, that jack up our emotions, that give us purchase enough for acts of identification, and excising all the rest, taking it as read.
But here’s the thing, the more your audience knows the genre, the more you can take things as read. And at the limit, you should be able to show the star, the car, the girl, the stunt and the "climax," and Bob is, as the English say, your uncle. You’re done. You take the rest of the film as read, and we can all go home. Whew. Think of the time we’d save.
And, yes, Professor Postrel, as our powers of assimilation get better even this should be possible. And this is a nice test actually of the Woody Allen proposition (that speed reading would tell us only that War and Peace "was about Russia". I am devoutly fond of this joke, thanks for the memory.) Give me a dedicated film goer who hasn’t see The Bank Job and I guarantee you that if we gave her the the star, the car, the girl, the stunt, the "climax," and of course the title, and she could give us an amazingly accurate account of how the film must go. This despite the fact that this film is pulled out of genre by the fact that it must honor the "real facts" of a "true story.") But I digress. (This paragraph refers to a comment that Steven Postrel was kind enough to leave on my post Wednesday.)
Here’s what I mean to say: If we are as Henry Jenkins argues we are getting better at reading contemporary culture, and especially generic film, the ratio of things left out to things kept in should be changing. We should be getting more telegraphic. Less should be more, a lot more.
Which brings me to voice over. Pam, my wife, says she thinks she is hearing more voice over on TV these days and I think she’s right. It’s there in any thing with Noir origins and there is quite a lot of this. And it’s even there in the police procedural (In Plain Sight) and the spy procedural (Burn Notice).
I think Voice Over (VO, hereafter) is about putting things in. It lets us add complexity, motive, background, depth and subtlety or simple exposition. The VO is always an intelligent, authorial voice. It doesn’t stumble. It never says stupid things. It is always astute, observant, and helpful. (I, for one, would love a movie that used a completely straight VO even as the stuff on the screen began ever so subtlety and then increasingly to depart from the what the VO thinks is going on.)
Perhaps this is a cultural moment where we are taking things out (by treating them as read) and putting things in (by way of the VO). Are these related? It’s as if we are getting so good at contemporary culture that lots can be removed. And this leaves Hollywood with a problem and an opportunity. There is now a big hole in the narrative machinery, one that every self respecting writer and director is eager to fill with good writing and directing.
On the whole, this shift is a good thing for popular culture. After all, the stuff that typically come from VO is the human stuff. And what is got rid of when we take things as read are all of the laborious details supplied by genre. In effect, this may be the end of a certain Hollywood era. After all, this is a cultural industry famous for taking the human out of films and replacing it with special effects, spectacle and starlets. VO may mark a departure from all of this.
I mean, isn’t this is what we mean by "procedural." It’s the literary machinery into which we can drop human beings without much more attention to their complexity as human beings. They are really there just as machine operators. Their job is to make the procedural go. If we are now prepared to take this as read, if we are getting rid of the procedure, we are free and forced to pay more attention to what is human about the human. And voice over feels perfect for this, at least as a short term intervention.
In sum, it feels like things are changing in Hollywood, and we may take the rise of Voice Over is a leading indicator of this new trend. Unless of course you saw this coming years ago, in which case please just take this post as read.