Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Storyteller's Rulebook: The Best Voiceover is Unreliable Voiceover

Raising Arizona is a great example of how you can use an unexpected metaphor family to reveal character and justify voiceover. Why do audiences usually get annoyed by heavy voiceover? Any type of voiceover can be written well, but it tends to be weak when it’s used in these ways:
  • Convey plot information that the writer doesn’t have time to portray onscreen.
  • Narrate events that are already being shown visually.
  • Give the hero’s snarky opinions on what we’re seeing.
But the best voiceover is unreliable voiceover: giving us a skewed perspective that contrasts with what we see onscreen. Think of Sissy Spacek’s childlike interpretation of the horrific events in Badlands, or Guy Pearce’s chilling misinterpretation of reality in Memento.
This brings us to Hi’s delusional metaphor family. Hi helpfully spells out what his metaphor family is here:
  • “See, I come from a long line of frontiersmen and outdoor types”
Now, of course, we know that this is crazy. Hi may or may not have that in his family tree, but he himself is certainly not a frontiersmen and outdoor type. Nevertheless, that’s the persona he’s adopted, and makes him quite likeable, such as in these choice bits of voiceover:
  • “Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.”
  • “I preminisced no return of the salad days.”
  • “Even my job seemed as dry and bitter as the prairie wind.”
For once, the voiceover is indespensible, because it provides us with something we can’t get  onscreen: In Hi’s mind, he’s a cowboy. This both amuses us royally and helps justify his nutty actions to us.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

ONe of my favorite examples of unreliable narration is this sequence in Goodfellas.

Henry is nervous because Jimmy is going to kill Morrie for nagging him about his share of some stolen money. At the end of the night Jimmy signals to Henry that he's changed his mind. In the narration Henry says something like, "He never would have believed me if I told him how close he was to getting killed." This line instantly eases the tension that has built up. Seconds later Morrie is stabbed in the head. His death is extra shocking because Henry has told us that he will live.