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.”
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA!
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:
INT. TAXI - DAY
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.
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.
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
She looks down thoughtfully.
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.
The two best friends had been
A SPLIT SCREEN slides in and shows Cristina sitting on the other side of the taxi.
...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.
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)
INT. DOUG’S APARTMENT - NEW YORK - NIGHT
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
--woke me up.
INT. TAXI - BARCELONA - DAY
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 here.)
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
- Apocalypse Now
- 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