Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Vicky Cristina Bad-Exposition

In light of the recent news that Woody Allen’s latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, received a WGA Screenplay Nomination, as well as the Golden Globe for best comedy, I’d like to get on a soapbox.

Let’s say you did a script review on
TriggerStreet or Zoetrope. In this review you pointed out a flaw in the script the size of Mount St. Helens. That is, the poor dumb writer used voice-over to explain EVERYTHING. Naturally, you point out that you gotta show, don’t tell. Weak writers use voice over as a crutch. You might even quote Mr. Robert McKee from his book, Story, in which he went so far as to say, “the trend toward using this telling narration throughout a film threatens the future of our art. More and more films by some of the finest directors from Hollywood and Europe indulge in this indolent practice.”

And of course, you get an e-mail from this poor dumb writer filled with polite hatred because you didn’t recognize his genius. He says, “Give me one example of a bad film with too much voice over.”


This was the cinematic equivalent of nails down a chalkboard. Woody Allen should be ashamed he resorted to such amateurish techniques to tell his story. Sitting through that film was excruciating. I was ready to walk out after 10 minutes. Consider this opening scene:


FS - Through the windshield as the taxi moves down a highway to the city. Camera tilts up on a road sign, which reads:


Vicky and Cristina decided to spend
the summer in Barcelona.

MCS - Vicky sitting in the rear passenger seat, looks out the window at the passing countryside.

NARRATOR (V.O.) (cont’d)
Vicky was completing her master’s
in Catalan identity, which she had
become interested in through her
great affection for the
architecture of Gaudí.

MCS - Cristina sits in the rear driver’s seat.

NARRATOR (V.O.) (cont’d)
Cristina, who spent the last six
months writing, directing and
acting in a twelve-minute film,
which she then hated, had just
broken up with yet another
boyfriend, and longed for a change
of scenery.

She looks down thoughtfully.

NARRATOR (V.O.) (cont’d)
Everything fell into place when a
distant relative of Vicky’s family,
who lived in Barcelona, offered to
put both girls up for July and

MCS - VICKY looks out the window at the countryside.

NARRATOR (V.O.) (cont’d)
The two best friends had been

A SPLIT SCREEN slides in and shows Cristina sitting on the other side of the taxi.

NARRATOR (V.O.) (cont’d)
...since college and shared the
same tastes and opinions on most
matters. Yet, when it came to the
subject of love, it would be hard
to find two more dissimilar

Vicky takes her cell phone out of her purse and dials a number.

NARRATOR (V.O.) (cont’d)
Vicky had no tolerance for pain and
no lust for combat. She was
grounded and realistic. Her
requirements in a man were
seriousness and stability.

(into cell phone)


DOUG, Vicky’s businessman fiancée, lies under the covers of his bed and talks into a cordless phone.

She had become engaged to Doug
because he was decent and

(into telephone)
--woke me up.


Vicky talks into her cell phone.

...and understood the beauty of

(into cell phone)
Oh, well, I’m sorry, I know I woke
you. Yeah, I’m -- I miss you, too.

Cristina, tugging at the ends of her hair, looks down wistfully.

Cristina, on the other hand,
expected something very different
out of love. She had reluctantly
accepted suffering as an inevitable
component of deep passion, and was
resigned to putting her feelings at
risk. If you asked her what it was
she was gambling her emotions on to
win, she would not have been able
to say. And that was exactly what
Vicky valued above all else.

(The screenplay is available

Following all this exposition via voice over narration, we’re given a dinner scene at the house in Barcelona where they’re staying with the owners. In this scene, much of this same information is repeated in the dialogue - the fact that Cristina isn’t working, made a 12-minute film she hated, and differs wildly from Vicky with respect to love.

I wanted to scream.

Later in the film, the narrator explains things that, had we been given a chance, could’ve easily figured out for ourselves. The voice over was also a crutch for lazy transitions, an excuse to not write dialogue, and most annoyingly, to explain to us exactly what we are seeing.


I must say, I agreed with the always perceptive critic, James Berardinelli, when he
wrote in his review, “Can a voiceover narrative ruin a movie? Probably not, but it can undermine one, and that's what happens here. Allen commits the cardinal sin of constantly break into his story with a barrage of verbal diarrhea uttered by Christopher Evan Welch, who really doesn't have the voice for this kind of thing. There's nothing ironic or witty or insightful about these disembodied observations. Half the time, they're stating the obvious. The rest of the time, Allen is using them as a crutch to move things along. One of the most basic rules of filmmaking is ‘show, don't tell.’ Employing (and overusing) a narrator allows Allen to re-write the rule as ‘tell, don't show.’ This is how plots start to feel contrived and artificial and how characters never quite gel.”

Exactly. Of course, this begs the question, are there films with good voice overs? Generally speaking, I am opposed to voice overs, as do most in the biz. They should be avoided if possible. You gotta show, don’t tell. I am ALL for that. Pass the clipboard and sign me up. Yet, there are still plenty of great films out there in which voice overs were used quite masterfully. Can you name a movie in which there was an effective use of voice overs? I offer you six:

  • A Christmas Story
  • Adaptation
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Goodfellas
  • Fight Club
  • Thank You For Smoking

I should also give a special nod to Kubrick’s Napoleon. If you’re going to write an epic bio of a huge (yet short) historical figure like Napoleon, and your film is going to encompass his entire life from his birth all the way up until his death, you’re going to need a narrator to move the plot along. There’s no getting around that. But Stanley did some interesting things with the narrator. At times, he’d make you see one thing while the voice over was telling you something different. For example, during the Italian campaign, we hear the Narrator tell us about all the glories and victories of Napoleon - while we watch French troops pillage small Italian towns and take away food and livestock from poor farmers. That’s clever use of the narrator, I think.

By the way, you might to check out Woody Allen’s
hilarious set diary, which is far more entertaining than anything you'll see in his film.


Emily Blake said...

I never got the whole Woody Allen thing. I know Annie Hall is supposed to be all awesome and stuff, but even in that movie I just want him to shut his mouth. Just shut it, shut up, shut your mouth. Stop talking. Shut up.

But he keeps talking and people are all "Oh Woody we love it when you keep talking!" so now what does he do? He writes a movie where his surrogate just talks endlessly.

Danny Stack said...

One of my favourite narrations/voice-overs is from Y Tu Mama Tambien, especially when the action dips into silence before the narrator speaks.

James Grebmops said...

NAPOLEON? Are you serious? The things you're talking about ended up in Barry Lyndon - one he completed. In fact, the very scene with the troops pillaging is in Barry Lyndon.

David Turner said...

Not a voice over, but Ferris Bueller's narration has a place in my heart, doing something fun with exposition.

I'll always be a fan of Allen's earlier, funnier stuff. Oh dear. I can't believe I just said that. I'll get my coat...

Lisa said...

I thought 300 had good use of voice over because it was a character telling the story. And the writing was awesome.

Also read Milk, and thought the voice over there was used well. (Was that pulled from a real tape from Harvey Milk?) Great use.

Completely agree on Vicky, Christina, Barcelona though. Irritating.

There needs to be a POINT to the voice over. I like to know where it's coming from, rather than just random voice spelling things out for me.

For 300 - the point is that the character is telling the story to the Senate, which we find out later.

For Milk - the point is that Milk is telling his story in case he's assassinated.

I can tolerate it. There just needs to be a reason it's there, other than spoon-feeding me.

Joshua James said...

Voice-over films, just off the top of my head:

FORREST GUMP (great use of it)

And especially


Christian M. Howell said...

Emily, I agree. His whiny voice is nearly unbearable. I can't believe that little snippet. That's total overkill.

At least GoodFellas interspersed images in the beginning.

Casino was also an excellent use of voice-over.

I actually didn't like Adaptation. Too weird. Not bad VO though.

David Kassin Fried said...

My favorite V.O. movie is American Beauty, for exactly the reason you say: it's rarely used for exposition, but more to underscore (or counterpoint) the action on screen. "Look at me, jerking off in the shower. This will be the high point of my day. It's all downhill from here." Or, later, "It's a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself." These moments reveal so much about the character, not just because of what is said but how it's said.

Ugly Deaf Muslim Punk Gurl! said...

WOW... the V.O is seriously lame.

Now I can see why you've got a grudge against this movie.

Mark said...

Double Indemnity baby. Straight down the line.

kevinbroom said...

Voice over was used effectively in The Shawshank Redemption. Shoot, I can just about quote Red's final narration about hope -- the last lines in the film.

Voice over gets a bad rap because it's a crutch for bad writing. The problem is not the technique, but the way it's used.

Ed Howard said...

You know, there's such a thing as enshrining a rule so deeply that you cease realizing when an artist is breaking the rule in a creative way, a way that resonates with the themes of his work. "Show don't tell" has, mostly for the good, become such a cliche of creative writing and screenwriting teaching that I think a lot of people are missing the very intentional redundancy of the way Woody uses the voiceover in this fantastic film. It's a film about two girls who try to have "experiences" while keeping their distance from life itself. The narration, with its wry, self-conscious distance, is thus utterly appropriate to the story Woody is telling here. Here's what I had to say about the narration in my original review:

"This dry, self-consciously literary tone is off-putting at first, with its arch stylization and the flat cadences that give equal emphasis to the dullest events and the most private emotions. It soon becomes apparent, though, that the narrator provides the perspective of the girls themselves, a tourist's perspective on a foreign city, skipping through the details and always trying to tie together moments into a coherent story. The narration might be the story that Cristina, with her artistic ambitions and lack of clear talent, would write about the trip afterward, stripping every event of its immediacy and emotion and inserting ponderous descriptions of inner states at every turn. In this light, the narration begins to comment wryly on the action, the narrator's discretion ironically calling attention to his ellipses and elisions."

daugustyn said...

Woody Allen's overuse of voice-over I believe works, for the most part, within the kinds of stories he's been telling lately. Essentially dramatized short fiction.

I don't know if it's out of boredom with "traditional" show-don't-tell cinema, or he's just out of ideas, but much of his recent output has employed V.O. to a great extent.

daugustyn said...

Oh, and best voice-over was in Sunset Boulevard.

barbara shallue said...

I realize I might be setting myself up as a target, but I loved "About a Boy", and it's got VO all through it. Also loved "Shawshank Redemption" and "American Beauty" - hope that redeems me a little.

maltinghead said...

50% of Coen Brothers films employ voiceover. Sometimes they're redundant (just like most of their films for the last decade), but they always have great language. H.I's voiceover at the start and end of Raising Arizona is sublime.

Noir and French New wave also used voiceover in interesting ways. It's a great technique when used sparingly and appropriately...like a guitar solo! Tread with caution!!!

bob said...

Voice over can be effective if it's portraying an inner dialogue or narrative that can't be shown on screen or as someone else said as an internal counterpoint to what was shown. Where it's at it's worst to me is when it reiterates something you've already just seen. That tells me the screenwriter doesn't trust their ability or doesn't trust the intelligence of the audience.

Luzid said...

This is ironic because of your recent rant against character arcs -- one of the things that actually makes a film mean something.

You rage like a by-the-book guru against something that does indeed make films weaker (voice-over like this atrocious example), yet don't seem to realize that doing so undercuts your death-to-the-established-meme argument against arcs due to your pounding the no-VO drum.

Kind of a disconnect, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

I think VCB would have done fine without most of the VO, but I do understand what he was going for. A good deal of it was meant to illustrate that the audience knows the characters better than they know themselves...


Anonymous said...

Peep Show!!

Mystery Man said...

Emily – Hehehe… I understand completely. Some of his lines, though, are so brilliant.

Danny – It’s been years since I’ve seen that film. There was voice over? Huh. I’ll have to watch that again.

James – So? I didn’t write an 8-part series on “Barry Lyndon.” I wrote one on Napoleon. This gave me the opportunity to include a link to a study I did of which I am very proud. Got a problem with that?

David – Classic!

Lisa – You’re absolutely right about needing a point. And I can tolerate it, too. The critics always say that voice over merely needs to be insightful and as maddeningly vague as that sounds, I think they’re right.

JJ – Those are great!

Christian – Yeah, “Adaptation” is kinda weird but you cannot deny that the scene with voice over and McKee is classic. I love that scene.

David – Yup! Completely agree.

Pretty Deaf Girl – What irritated me most was the repetition of information.

Mark – I kinda waver on that film. Everyone loves it but at times, it feels like too much talk.

Kevin – Yeah. Classic!

Ed – Fantastic comments. I loved this thought: “there's such a thing as enshrining a rule so deeply that you cease realizing when an artist is breaking the rule in a creative way, a way that resonates with the themes of his work.”

David – Really? I do think there is a good story buried beneath all of these ideas of his. I think so many plots, particularly those about Vicky should’ve been cut and he should’ve focused primarily on Cristina and this threesome situation she was in. That’s when the film came alive, but as it is, he has too much going on, and a lot of it not essential.

Barbara – Love it!

Maltinghead – “Raising Arizona!” Love it! Noir, especially employs voice over, and it illuminates regret and other sides to a character as well as preparing an audience for the (usually) tragic ending. I love film noirs, man.

Bob – Damn. Those are fine words.

Luzid – That’s pretty good. That’s my favorite criticism so far. I don’t hate voice overs. I hate bad voice overs. McKee hates almost all voice overs, which is ironic because even his “model” for storytelling, “Casablanca,” has a needless voice over in the beginning. I also don’t view myself as someone who’s here simply to rant against gurus and established formulas. I just want to explore all aspects of the craft. If I agree, I agree, if I don’t, I don’t. But the “Character Arc” article was especially fun for me because getting these views aired publicly has been so long overdue in this industry. Plus, I’d like to write juicy controversial articles for the magazine, because that’s so much fun.

Ross – Walking out of the theater, I remember telling a friend that he had V.O. b/c he had too many plot lines going on.

Anon – Woo hoo!

Luzid said...


I hear ya -- and "rant" was probably too strong a word.

Brooke Cloudbuster said...

I think that The Hours utilized voice-over in a way that wasn't totally hamfisted and set the scene well for the rest of the film. (Granted, that's not really Hare's achievement, but it was a smart move on Cunningham's part that translated well to film.) The closing voice-over is similarly well-executed.

Anonymous said...

I think voice-over, like any technique, can be used well: it just often isn't. A lot of the time, we just hear the writer basically saying: 'I couldn't think how to show this'.

I mean, my background is mainly in the theatre where monologue is a useful technique. Since you can go inside the character's head and have them show the audience things, you couldn't possibly put on stage.

Thing is even where this is accepted the monologues must create scenes in themselves, they must they must add levels to the text, and act of storytelling must be justified.

So, I'd recommend if anyone's thinking of using themselves, why is the character telling this story? And is it a story?

Crumbs said...

MM, MM, you will love this: watch "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK" (directed by Park Chan-Wook). The use of narration in the script has re-invented itself 20 times in the first 20 minutes. And the script is just so good! The play on words!

Crumbs said...

OK, wow, what a movie. Park Chan-Wook, you reinvent yourself every time and you deliver. Wow. What an amazing film.

MM, you *have* to do a post on this guy, most famous in the West for his Vengeane Trilogy ("Sympathy For Mr Vengeance," "Oldboy," "Sympathy For Lady Vengeance"). But WOW, is "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK" a wonderful movie. The writing is top-notch. The directing is STELLAR.

He goes right up there with Welles, Kubrick and Kieslowski. Wow. Just, wow. I'm in shock at how good he is.

A cuppa joe said...

For excellent use of V.O. in my book, consider also "Million Dollar Baby", the transitions in "Fried Green Tomatoes", Salieri confessing to the priest in Amadeus or Jack Crabb in "Little Big Man". Without Crabb's later insights, audiences would never have gotten the same "take" on the Amerian Indians over decades of John Wayne films in this brilliant film that turned all those attitudes on its ear the 70s! Also note that the voice-overs in these films are giving us perceptions the characters would have been unable to voice at the time they were living the events also portrayed in these films. Very often, (it seems to me) V.O.s are also used when a writer wants to tell a 'bigger story', as opposed to the slice of life confines of your average film. (though "Dances with Wolves", another film filled with V.O.s is an exception to this 'looking back' technique.)
And please read McKee again! He is not opposed to V.O. as Kaufman hilariously pretended, and even refers to it as Woody's 'great gift' (p.344) He points out that his films would be 'lucid' without them, but that the wit, ironies and insights couldn't be done any other way.
Another example of a 'bigger story' that apparently doesn't always work since he uses it to clue us in in "VCB" that the film is juxtaposing two very different (and very classic) approaches to love: Vicky's search for peace and security vs Christina's search for excitement and passion. The film clearly illustrates the drawbacks and benefits of each, which was the clearly stated objective of the film (through V.O. - and how would you clarify that otherwise?)
I thought it was his most touching film in years (and agree that the previous ten or so were lame, going all the way back to "Crimes and Misdemeanors", perhaps.) Woody's best films have a philosophical approach, a search for the meaning of life, or love especially, exploring all of life's, and love's ironies - to the joy of all his fans. Though clearly, and sadly, not everyone 'gets it', it seems.

Mystery Man said...

On: "Vicky's search for peace and security vs Christina's search for excitement and passion. The film clearly illustrates the drawbacks and benefits of each, which was the clearly stated objective of the film (through V.O. - and how would you clarify that otherwise?)"

Why the need to clarify or even verbalize the objective? We never needed it explained to us.


a cuppa joe said...

I can believe you didn't need it, but given a number of comments and reviews I've seen ("he should've focused on this character or that", etc.), it seemed clear to me that many didn't get it - despite his stating it so clearly!

I did agree with the example you gave, where the girls tell their hosts what the narrator just told us - the only scene that (briefly) annoyed me. One or the other is enough, especially so close! Unless Ed Howard got it right above. That was an interesting analysis..!

Mystery Man said...

Thanks so much!

wow gold said...
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