The Potential Problem: This is a visual medium. You should show and not tell. And telling us what it means denies us the chance to figure that out for ourselves, which is far more meaningful.
Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes and no. It’s so well written and well-delivered that it’s hard to mind too much, but it becomes exhausting at time, such as when they’re watching a movie and Joe tells us:
- “Two or three times a week, Max would haul up that enormous oil painting that was had been presented to her by some Nevada chamber of commerce and we’d see a movie, right there in her living room. So much nicer than going out, she’d say. The plain fact was that she was afraid of that world outside, afraid that it would remind her that time had passed. They were silent movies, and Max would run the projector, which was just as well, it kept him from giving us an accompaniment on that wheezing organ. She’d sit very close to me, and she’d smell of tube roses, which was not my favorite perfume, not by a long shot. Sometimes she’d clutch my arm or my hand, forgetting she was my employer, just becoming a fan, excited about that actress up there on the screen. I guess I don’t have to tell you who the star was. They were always her pictures. That was all she wanted to see.”
Wilder is failing moviemaking 101, but, undeniably, this movie is a beloved classic. Everybody loves it, including myself, so the hard-and-fast rules of screenwriting seem to fail here. Why?
- First and foremost, the wit. Super-sharp details like “presented to her by some Nevada chamber of commerce” make us happy to listen, even if we don’t need to hear it all.
- In some sense, the narration is Wilder’s solution to another potential problem: the passive protagonist. Ideally, Joe would be confronting Norma on the ghoulishness of this spectacle, but he’s too passive to show a shred of outward protest, so he confides in us instead.
- But the biggest factor that saves the narration is this: Joe is trying to process what it all means, and he certainly shows more perspective in his voiceover than he does in his actions, but ultimately even the voiceover fails to grasp the full pity of the situation.