Voice Over, Hollywood’s problem and opportunity

The_bank_job_1 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. 

8 thoughts on “Voice Over, Hollywood’s problem and opportunity

  1. Deborah M

    Thanks Grant! Enjoy the McCracken emanations…Increased use of VO is linked I think to our loss of interest in concentrating, thinking deeply and making connections as we click across media and experience text (words, images, fashion, signs and symbols). VO insures that we “get it” – however “it” is intended. Frentic, insistent and irrepressible conversational uses of “You know?” “Do you know what I mean?” and more recently “Does that make sense?” underscore the concern that we are not getting it and that we don’t know what it means, or that we are missing the core meaning. VO offers us help – just in case we missed it, were looking at the scroll, are being subjected to a secondhand cellphone conversation, are watching on a computer whose screen is filled with popping, flashing and morphing data, or can hear the relentless base line emanating unbidden from a fellow mass transit-rider’s ipod. Your conjuring of Deus Ex Machina (” It’s the literary machinery into which we can drop human beings without much more attention to their complexity as human beings. “) is wonderful here – again thanks. VO as vox ex machina? and speaking of “as read”, for one of the many riffs on loss of ability to “read”, have a look at a recent article in The Atlantic: Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains by Nicholas Carr

  2. James

    Two perspectives on VO:

    1 – storytelling perspective
    To me, most of the VO I see is a cheat. It’s lazy storytelling. It’s poor exposition substituting for poorer filmmaking, telling instead of showing.

    As first-person narrative, which most of VO is, it fails to honor the character’s perspective (instead, using the character as a stand-in for a narrator) while at the same time failing to play with the first person unreliability (misjudging others, being wrong, lying, remembering for convenience). In short: boo. VO is a hack’s crutch.

    2 – economic perspective
    VO is easy to translate for global markets. No one sees the narrator’s lips move.

  3. srp

    James: Your attitude toward VO is very common among the critics, but I have never understood it. Think about GoodFellas, where Ray Liotta’s VO drives the story, the setting, and helps us understand the character. Or Casino. (I will admit that I even preferred the VO-laden studio cut of Blade Runner over the artsier Scott version.) If nothing else, VO can avoid ridiculous expository conversations among characters that should never happen because both parties already know about what they’re “discussing.” I love Burn Notice, and the use of VO there is brilliant.

    Grant: I agree that as we learn a genre, we can handle a lot of “data compression”–just tell me how this version differs from the template, since I already know the template. Of course, this assumes that we don’t enjoy recapitulation of the template even when we already know it, and making this recapitulation enjoyable and somehow still fresh is a critical point for the skilled genre practitioner.

    I would take this point about data compression even further: It should be possible to tell huge amounts of story, including development of characters, in relatively short run-times by leaving out intermediate scenes and skipping ahead. The audience knows what would have inevitably happened in between what is shown. A good example where this was done is the beginning of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, where a fairly complicated backstory is established in a couple of minutes. I wonder what could be done if that pacing were applied to a whole movie.

  4. Rick Liebling

    At the end of the day it comes down to execution. VO, when done with skill can be useful, but more often than not it is used as a cheap shortcut with no added value. It too can become it’s own cliche – think of the VO for every movie trailer you’ve ever seen (“In a world…”).

    VO also often assumes a certain lack of intelligence in the audience. I don’t always want to know the backstory or the unseen, I’d rather piece it togher myself. Some of the best movie experiences happen when you debate what really happened afterwards on the drive home.

    On the larger question of “as read,” again, that’s a quality issue to me, more than genre knowledge. You say “got it” during the Bank Job not because you know what’s coming, but because what’s coming wasn’t done well. In the best genre movies you know what’s happening but you still want to see it because the quality of execution is so juicy.

  5. Darren

    If you ask me, voice over is a crutch. It’s indicative that the creators fear that the audience won’t understand the film as written, and so use voice over to reinforce the events.

    Watch how often voice over only occurs at the beginning and end of a film. The screenwriter want the audience to get off on the right foot, and leave the theatre with the details worked out. Generally if voice over occurs throughout a film, it’s being used more expertly as a meaningful storytelling tool.

    Here’s a good litmus test: Ask yourself whether the voice over is essential understanding to the plot or character development. It rarely is.

    That said, I do agree with your notion about ‘taking things as rote’. Smart contemporary films do this all the time–lousy ones don’t. David Mamet’s films offer excellent (and usually enjoyable) examples of this practice.

  6. Obs

    Voice over is *only* acceptable when it’s done by Rex Allen on behalf of a cougar.

    An extra-special exception is made for Sam Elliot, because The Dude Abides.

  7. Jonathan Foulkes


    don’t agree that voice over is only a crutch – it can cetainly be used as you’ve described, but not every time.

    A good recent example is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, where the voiceover is sometimes at odds with the action and adds another layer to pay attention to rather than straightening everything out.

  8. kayt

    my problem with this line of logic is that it can only work for a little while you can only take the details of the tenth bank heist film you’ve seen as read if you have seen nine others, so when they all start dropping the details new viewers wont be able to take those details as read, and a bank heist film that includes the details will be seen by the old movie critics as dated pulp and it will be a crazy box office hit because the younger viewers will love it.

    aging folks are far too quick to forget what it was like to not know as much as they know now.

    My class were complaining last night that there is a whole lot of election coverage they don’t understand because it makes too many assumptions about knowledge that they don’t have… this is a related idea.


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