The use of narration in film is something that varies depending on who you ask. Some consider it to be lazy, using the overarching soundtrack to inform the characters, paint their inner worlds and give voice to the voiceless. You can understand this perspective, especially when it comes to overuse. Narration can be used after the fact to fill in the gaps, to redirect the story and provide some much-needed glue when things have come apart. Perhaps this is the real reason it’s considered less than, enabling filmmakers to come in after all’s said and done to do some fix-ups or add depth where there isn’t any hard-earned characterisation.
The efficient and subtle nature of filmmaking, or at least what the more artfully-minded strive for, insists that screenwriters infer rather than manipulate. We don’t get spoon-fed in real life, so why should it any different when it comes to movie-making. We’ve got to pick up the subtle cues, read the facial expressions, walk a mile in their shoes and find commonality in order to get what’s going on in their heads. It’s about placing more weight on the writing and actor’s performance than just chucking it about until it sounds good. This is why narration is looked down on, made to feel inferior and void of forethought.
To play devil’s advocate for a moment, one could argue that narration is not so much a cop out as it is its own art form. The problem is that narration is so often mangled that we lose sight of just how incredible it can be under the right circumstances. It’s more about the finesse with which it’s implemented rather than slapping it together in a half-hearted way. When done with precision it can work quite beautifully, creating a curious tension between the audience and the character who is expounding on his situation or frame of mind.
This is an opportunity to catch the viewer up to speed, instead of labouring the exposition, allowing greater efficiency within the storytelling function. Sometimes there’s so much story to tell that you can’t help but land your protagonist in the deep end. When used effectively, narration can confer the atmosphere, mood and dialect of the film. Consider it’s use in film noir. Now cliched, narration is a defining feature of film noir, almost as much a part of the genre as filming in black and white.
The trick is about intentionality. When was this narration written for the film? If incorporated in advance and with direction it generally lands better, there to reinforce the visuals and offer rich subtext. When issued as an afterthought or written sloppily, the effect is that it not only hits the ear wrong but it comes across like cheating… not making the hard yards to use dialogue to mine character. Whether you’re concocting a student or feature film, the bottom line is that narration needs to swathe rather than slap.
Corner Office is a recent film that’s upended the notion of narration and what constitutes the rules according to usage. John Hamm stars as Orson, an office employee in an absurdist dramedy about a man’s growing paranoia around his office co-worker’s suspicions. Having found a comfortable secret room, he begins to obsess about everything from his colleague’s encroaching file space to the sense that his co-workers are ganging up on him. Convinced he’s found a cure-all room that finds him in an idealised take-charge space, there’s a Kaufmann-esque vibration to Corner Office, which harps on a similar yet pruned down dynamic to The Office and Office Space.
For the greater part of the film, Orson’s thoughts are conveyed through narration. At first somewhat unnerving as the character seems destined not to talk, dialogue soon starts to transpire as he gets more opportunities to converse. A clever ploy to lessen Hamm’s involvement, it enables him to delve deeper into performance, making the real challenge about conveying Orson’s secret world through expression and mannerisms. Taken from his headspace, we get a first-hand account of how he sees the world. A slow-creeping doubt filters in as our hero’s mindset begins to be questioned, making this quirky misadventure slightly eerie. Creating a wonderful tension between his inner thoughts and what’s really happening, we have to question reality as the absurd situation plays out.