L13FC: Voice-over Narration

Welcome back! It’s the thirteenth and time to talk about the movies.

Many movie buffs realize there are more bad voice-overs than good ones. Telling the plot of the story as if the audience can’t figure it out visually is insulting and detracts from the scene. The function of good voice-overs is to provide a contextual layer that enhances the themes of the story or magnifies a character in a way that is not seen with the visual narrative. If you ask for a top 10 list of best voice-overs in film, many would include classics by Billy Wilder, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Malick, Fincher, and the Cohen Brothers. Some have argued that Shawshank Redemption and Million Dollar Baby with Morgan Freeman‘s soothing voice is technically bad voice-over narration. I admit it’s true. Imagine the pair without his hallmark voice. Would the stories still be touching? Yes. Did the voice-over help us see the story on another level or reveal the principal character in a way that enhanced him? Nope. Did it complicate the point of view? Yes. (And still, I love both films anyway.)

The best voice-over narrations reveal the inner battles of the character. The tension and the eerieness catapults to great heights when the audience is bound to the mind of a maniac like Alex in Clockwork Orange. Better yet is when the layers unfold to reveal the unreliable narrator or one who speaks from the grave like Joe Gillis. That’s a dimension that enhances the story.

One Great Example 

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Apocolypse Now (1979) is a film with great voice-over narration. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) journeys into the forbidden inner realm of Cambodia with orders to assassinate the Army’s fallen angel, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Willard ruminates about Kurtz. He struggles with the morality of his mission. The jungle and the river and the motley crew who travel with him seep into his system. Without the voice-over narration, we would not be privy to the unusual relationship that grows between Willard and Kurtz even though they have never met. By the end of the film, no voice-over is necessary. Our anticipation of meeting Kurtz combined with the exoticism of the heart of darkness and fueled by the singing of Jim Morrison provided one of the more captivating climaxes in cinematic history. We have been primed to wonder if Kurtz is crazy and we are horrified to the extent at which war has pillaged the minds and landscape along the way.

One Bad Example 

Molly’s Game (2018)With a voice-over style that reminded me of The Wolf of Wall Street, the fast-talking, no-nonsense narration by the principal character Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) interjects in and out of the film and shares her story as though she were giving an interview to a reporter.  Explaining the lingo of poker players with similar on-screen graphics used in The Big Short to simplify the concept of the game for audience members who might not know the culture of poker was debatably effective. Jessica’s voice-over was monotone. She’s smart and tough just like a man, but her narration lacked a personality. This is unfortunate since the story-line about the real-life Molly Bloom is fascinating.

The Molly Bloom voice-over narration didn’t help.  Especially when she shared scenes with her two leading men who gave the best performances–Idris Elba as her attorney Charley Jaffey, and Kevin Costner as her father Larry Bloom. Elba and Costner breathed life into their characters displaying them as smart and tough, but their human frailties and emotions were present throughout the film. Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain’s Molly hides behind a hard shell, but she comes across as a robotic doll. The best performance I’ve seen Chastain give was as Celia Foote in The Help. Ironically, she shines best as an actress when she’s not smart or driven.

Please, won’t you share your favorite voice-over and explain how the voice-over enhances the film or magnifies a character with dimension?  Or, what’s a bad example you’ve seen lately?  

Film Spotlight: Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam.”  So says legendary Francis Ford Coppola.

As years roll by and great films turn into classics, certain classics become epic by proportion. 35 years later, Apocalypse Now is such an example. How many times have I watched it? As a movie buff, it’s all too easy being an armchair critic and picking about this and that. What’s truly amazing is witnessing how a film is made. Haven’t we all wished we could make a film? When you see what filmmakers have to go through to create art, it is humbling and we should cut them some slack.

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Since its 1979 release, Apocalypse Now has been revered by many as the Vietnam film from the last 35 years. Francis Ford Coppola invested all his money on the project and brought his wife Eleanor, Sophie, and her two brothers to experience the journey down the river into madness. Based loosely on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the story is a classic tale about man’s search of good vs. evil within. This was the premise behind the film, too. Captain Willard traveled down the heart of the river to face and assassinate Col. Kurtz played by Marlon Brando.

However, the fascinating part of the film was not the film at all. It’s how Coppola made the film. Francis Ford Coppola was a disorganized, egomaniac and his 238-day shooting schedule, spread over 16 months, was a venture pressing the limits of sanity. Typhoons wrecked the set. Martin Sheen had a heart attack. Filmed in the Philippines, military choppers “rented” for the film by the government left during the middle of shooting to combat rebel insurrections. Marlon Brando had not read the script nor the novel and did not know what to do. Dennis Hopper was as crazy as his sycophant photojournalist. Cast members were snorting, drinking, smoking, and swallowing whatever they could get their hands on. 

Coppola, coming down from his high from the Godfather I & II films, was Kurtz. Who chronicled the sixteenth month ordeal? His wife, Eleanor Coppola, who was asked by her husband to videotape and create a documentary. Their California Victorian in Napa Valley and all their money was fronted as collateral.

How was a landmark film such a cluster mess? How was one of the more revered directors at a loss how to end the film? What was his epiphany? I won’t tell you.

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I highly recommend the documentary Hearts of Darkness (1991) with a CODA: 30 Years Later, all footage and writing done by Eleanor. The Coppola’s have been married since 1963 and her insight as a witness to the filmmaking process, invaluable. I can’t imagine being married to Coppola. She is an extraordinary woman. What are your favorite scenes from the movie?

This sequence was one of the hardest sections of the film to orchestrate.  Robert Duvall seared his performance into my mind and heart. Lt. Col. Kilgore is one of the most compelling characters in cinema.

 

Harvey Keitel was initially selected and then dismissed after filming. They brought in Martin Sheen to play Capt. Willard. Coppola’s style toward his actors was to give suggestions on cards of the filming for the day and allow the actors to improvise. On his 36th birthday, Marty was so drunk, they filmed him in the motel room and the flooding of emotional breakdown was real. They needed a scene which showed Capt. Willard suffering and therefore able to kill Kurtz. The scene with him rising up out of the river and the sacrifice of the Ox and Kurtz was beautiful and disturbing.

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“This is the End” by The Doors was a masterstroke to play for the climax of the film. The film teased and built such tension that when the end did come, it was the grand ending Francis Ford Coppola had been looking for. Do you like Apocalypse Now as much as I do? What are your favorite scenes? Have you seen the documentary? It’s fantastic.

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