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Invisible Storytellers

Invisible Storytellers: Voice-Over Narration in American Fiction Film

Sarah Kozloff
Copyright Date: 1988
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  • Book Info
    Invisible Storytellers
    Book Description:

    "Let me tell you a story," each film seems to offer silently as its opening frames hit the screen. But sometimes the film finds a voice-an off-screen narrator-for all or part of the story. FromWuthering HeightsandDouble IndemnitytoAnnie HallandPlatoon, voice-over narration has been an integral part of American movies. Through examples from films such asHow Green Was My Valley,All About Eve,The Naked City, andBarry Lyndon, Sarah Kozloff examines and analyzes voice-over narration. She refutes the assumptions that words should only play a minimal role in film, that "showing" is superior to "telling," or that the technique is inescapably authoritarian (the "voice of god"). She questions the common conception that voice-over is a literary technique by tracing its origins in the silent era and by highlighting the influence of radio, documentaries, and television. She explores how first-person or third-person narration really affects a film, in terms of genre conventions, viewer identification, time and nostalgia, subjectivity, and reliability. In conclusion she argues that voice-over increases film's potential for intimacy and sophisticated irony.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-90966-3
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    “Let me tell you a story,” each narrative film seems to offer silently as its opening frames hit the screen: “It all started this way …”

    Behind every film we sense a narrating “voice,” a master-of-ceremonies figure that presents and controls the text. But in many cases we also hear from off-screen a human voice—a man, woman, or child who explicitly narrates all or part of the story we are about to witness. In Howard Hawks’sRed River(1948), an unseen voice (Walter Brennan) remarks:

    You see, the story of the Red River D. started this way. Along about...

  5. 1 The Prejudices against Voice-Over Narration
    (pp. 8-22)

    It is past time for a reevaluation of voice-over narration. In half a century, only a few have found any kind words for the technique,¹ while scores have criticized it; no matter how many filmmakers have used it and no matter what they have actually done with it, a series of interrelated prejudices has kept us from either taking it very seriously or hearing it clearly. Upon examining these objections, however, I have discovered that both those raised many years ago and those in circulation today rest on premises that recent developments in film, narrative, and literary scholarship call into...

  6. 2 Ancestors, Influences, and Development
    (pp. 23-40)

    In chapter 1, I questioned the conventional notion that films caught voice-over (like the measles?) from novels; it thus behooves me to present an alternate and more detailed account of the technique’s development. Tracing the birth and history of a cinematic technique is a risky business; without having seeneveryfilm made since 1927, I cannot be sure that the trends I perceive from my research on several hundred are accurate for the thousands that have been produced. What follows is necessarily offered only as a working hypothesis.

    Such hypothesizing is worthwhile, however, because only by sketching in a macrocosmic...

  7. 3 First-Person Narrators
    (pp. 41-71)

    If you close your eyes and think back on movies you have seen, surely you can hear a sound montage of characters’ voices. Marlowe fades in:

    The joint looked like trouble, but that didn’t bother me. Nothing bothered me. The two twenties felt niee and snug against my appendix.

    And then Scout,

    Maycomb was a tired old town in 1932 when I first knew it. … It was hotter then. A man’s shirt collar was wilted by nine o’clock in the morning. …

    And then Joe Gillis, Michael O’Hara, Mildred Pierce, Nick Carraway, Addie Ross, Jane Eyre, and Travis Bickle....

  8. 4 Third-Person Narrators
    (pp. 72-101)

    Fiction films with third-person voice-over narrators are decidedly less common than those using first person. One reason for this imbalance is that adaptations of novels with heterodiegctic narration are less likely to use voice-over; a film ofJane Eyrewithout Jane’s narration is unthinkable, because the narrative is filtered through her consciousness, butPride and Prejudicecould be produced without voice-over (Leonard, 1940). We miss the prose and “tone of voice” of Austen’s anonymous narrator, but the filmmakers partially compensate through the acting, the action, and the mise-en-scène. Thus, while from the late 1930s to the present the great majority...

  9. 5 Irony in Voice-Over Films
    (pp. 102-126)

    InThe Nature of Narrative, Scholes and Kellogg note that the Jamesians’ real complaint against the literary intrusive narrator stems from the fact that he is supposed to be totally reliable. Thus, they state, “a narrator who is not in some way suspect, who is not in some way open to ironic scrutiny, is what the modern temper finds least bearable.”¹ This study has been leading up to irony in order to demonstrate how filmmakers open up their narrators to this scrutiny.

    To understand the relationship of voice-over to irony, however, we must examine the technique in even more detail....

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 127-130)

    It is not insignificant that Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg start their wide-ranging study of the nature of narrative with oral storytelling and end with film. Narrative cinema’s roots spring from the same soil (fertilized by folktales, myths, epics, romances, histories, chronicles, and autobiographies) as those of the novel. When literary botanists such as Gérard Genette, Seymour Chatman, and Franz Stanzel study one species, it is hardly surprising that their findings are relevant to the other as well.

    We might consider, too, that “narrative theory” itself is a product of the age of the cinema. Critics speculate as to how...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 131-140)
  12. Filmography
    (pp. 141-154)
  13. Bibliography of Works Cited
    (pp. 155-160)
  14. Index
    (pp. 161-167)