Feb 09

I’m Gonna Tell You A Story

Do You See1 comment • 357 views

Show, don’t tell. That’s one of those screen writing mantras which you can pay £200 quid to hear at seminars booked out of the back of Empire magazine. And it was certainly a solid adage to use in silent movies, where telling would be a trial in lip-reading or like reading a kids picture book where the slow reader has control of page turning. But is narration really a ropey old get out for a movie which won’t work without it? I saw a couple of films this week which take the mid-ground on this issue. Films which would work without their narration, but are probably a bit better for it.

Actually I am not sure if Vicky Cristina Barcelona would work without its narration, which is not to say it is an integral part of the project. It seems added on as an afterthought, as if something else is needed to explain a few of the subtleties of the characters. It certainly allows Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson to act with a backstory already in place, which makes their life considerably easier. The Spanish characters have to act their complexities out to us*. A new Woody Allen film is like a new Morrissey album (or at least used to be before Cassandra’s Dream), has an audience but won’t change the world. And its not as if Allen is a stranger to using framing devices, he’s used pretty much all of them. But the disembodied narrator of Vicki Cristina Barcelona adds nothing but exposition and momentum to the film (neither of which are bad things). Allen rarely allows the narrator to comment ironically on the storyline, there are a couple of snarks, but it is not up their with great comic narrations such as, er, Ron Howard’s in Arrested Development**. Interestingly though the narration has another effect, which is play up the presence of the soundtrack. This is a little unfortunate because the soundtrack is basically the same Spanish jazz pop folderol about Barcelona OVER AND OVER AGAIN.
 Giulia y Los Tellarini – Barcelona

Imagine listening to this for an hour and a half? Which brings the other key point about a narration heavy film. You can really move things on a clip if you are telling, not showing.

All of which ties nicely into the other narrated film I saw this week, a rewatching of Badlands. A soundtrack in search of a film***, it could probably work as a radio play as it is, which surprised me considering how much is written about Malick’s visual genius. Yes Badlands is a pretty movie, but point a camera at various US landscapes, from scrub to desert and you’ll have pretty. And whilst the plot clips along like Bonnie and Clyde Jr, there is little beyond style to hold it all together. Style and Sissey Spacek’s naif first person narration. Without it Spacek’s Holly is culpable for all the crimes Martin Sheen’s Kit commits. With it, well she’s still culpable but in a era specific weaker sex sort of way. And what with Badlands being partly about the celebrity effect too, narration seems almost apt. Because the TV show most associated with empty celebrity, Big Brother, is a perfect example of how a little narration, goes a very long way.

*At least those which don’t rely of crude stereotyping of tempestuous Latino artists.

**A show which certainly would not work without its narration.

***It really is as well. There is nothing on this soundtrack which has not been reused, recycled and remixed to death. Even now the music lingers a lot longer than even Martin Sheen’s perfectly coiffured quiff.


  1. 1
    Mark M on 15 Feb 2009 #

    The anti-narration line is the biggest load of crock – it’s a bit of clever sounding theory that only holds up if you resolutely ignore the history of good filmmaking. Take your pick from (and this is completely off the top of my head) Kind Hearts And Coronets, The Magnificent Ambersons, GoodFellas, 2 ou 3 Choses Que Je Sais D’Elle, Apocalypse Now, Sunset Boulevard, and (as you say) Badlands. That is forgetting hundreds of great films. And of course, TV shows like Arrested Development or My Name Is Earl. It’s a storytelling option that works well some times and not others: in the case of Malick it works brilliantly in Badlands and not at all (I would argue) in Days Of Heaven. Your narrator can be factual, unreliable, multiple, filling in the whole story, just there to give you a start…

    More importantly though, I absolutely love Sheen’s hair in Badlands.

  2. 2
    Mark M on 2 Mar 2009 #

    Have finally seen VCB and you’re absolutely right about that dreadful song, and about the way that the narration has been written to be of no intrinsic interest in itself – it’s purely functional, which seems an odd choice for Allen; I kept expecting jokes. As for the film as a whole I thought: on the one hand, it is more forgivable than the London films in that it is unashamedly a tourist-eyed film, an American fantasy about hot-blooded Latins. So, considering why they are in Barcelona, it is not unreasonable for the characters to, for instance, be constantly be popping to Parc Guell, which is not at all central and you wouldn’t passing through casually. On the other, I thought in a way it had been thoroughly pre-empted by Whit Stillman’s Barcelona, a movie I had a lot of problems with but which put Woody Allenesque Americans in Catalunya to much more interesting effect.

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