When writing for the screen, you should famously show rather than tell, an expression which seems tailormade to shoot down any suggestions of voice-over. Who could forget Brian Cox’s portrayal of screenwriting guru Robert McKee in Adaptation, bellowing “God help you if you use voice-over in your work my friends… It’s flaccid, sloppy writing”. And yet, when we talk about Martin Scorsese’s indelible and unmistakable voice as a filmmaker, it’s tough not to arrive at… the voice-over. Whether Henry Hill, Travis Bickle or Jordan Belfort; we’re invited into the interior world of a character otherwise left on the fringes of society (high or low). Scorsese is attracted to these scripts, even when he’s not involved in the writing process. Why?
In his own words, the director has a love for story-telling, the expression of personal identity through the narrative which can be streamlined into the voice of the narrator, a technique particularly notable in the classic British films Scorsese saw as a young man (as in the cold and calculated killer of Kind Hearts and Coronets). It’s a style which clashes with the narration typical of Italian and French New Wave films, but, as with much of the director’s inexhaustive influences, the styles are made to meld.
Around this same time a young ‘Marty’ had begun making his own films, with a focus on the spaces and people around him. His New York neighbourhood was replete with unique perspectives and provided an insightful authenticity which buoyed his projects. His mother and father, his pals, the people on the streetcorner, their anecdotes and stories had “the humour and the irony, the seriousness of the stories could be powerful”. Mini-documentary Italian American lives and dies by the Scorsese parentage’s charm, while Mean Streets announced an unflinchingly “un-Hollywood” new wave of American filmmaking in the ’70s.
Many of Scorsese’s best remembered characters undergo intensely personal experiences. In Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta is a closed book, essentially incapable of self-reflection or humour, prone to self-hatred. For this reason, we never hear a thought in his head. Travis Bickle holds on to a similar sickness, though he swims in thoughts, his mind too crowded to draw any healthy conclusions. There is no outlet, though you’re able to track a dip in the narration’s presence once Travis begins making a connection with Betsy. When this and other outlets fail him, we sever our connection completely, as Bickle sets about releasing his violent urges. Even we’ve lost sight of him.
Then there are the talkative, delusionally unreliable narrators, a good match for narcissists with skewed worldviews like Jordan Belfort and Henry Hill (whose insights and personal opinions could be plucked from their source novels). Would either of these pulse-pounding films have made their point as effectively were we kept at a total distance, made to wag our fingers and whole-heartedly disapprove. We know where they are headed, and why they’ve done what they’ve done, but there’s no finer way to elucidate the headspace of the self-involved than to provide them the opportunity to address the audience directly, like the showmen they are to themselves. This is to say nothing of films like Casino, where Scorsese juggles several narrators throughout.
Never forget that when it comes to filmic techniques generally sworn off by advisors, teachers, professionals, and the like, the rule is not to avoid them. It’s to know how to use them in service of your film, rather than as a crutch. Even Robert McKee, reacting to the scene of his outburst mentioned above remarked that he wasn’t against narration, but that it shouldn’t be used to describe what’s already being seen on the screen.