While watching the abominable, pretentious film The Longest Week (2014) the other night, I became aware of a horrifying trend—a cynical, mean-spirited pattern so insidious that it threatens our own culture and everything we prize surrounding it.
That’s right. I’m talking about unnecessary movie narration … one of the most disturbing problems the world is facing today.
All right, so I’m guilty of hyperbole. Forgive me. I certainly exaggerate, but this is an issue in cinema, and it needs to be addressed—by directors, writers and even producers. Narration, in general, doesn’t add anything to feature-length films and instead often serves as a distraction, lessening the quality of a picture through telling, not showing, and preventing the audience from making its own conclusions.
The Longest Week had this issue and was interminable because of it; the action slowed down to accommodate the voiceover, creating a tedious mess. But this movie is just one example of a cinematic disease that has become pervasive in the industry, a crutch for lazy storytelling and uninspired dialogue. It’s an easy way out, in my opinion. And a poor one as well.
True, there are exceptions, and they often seem to originate from literature, where the narration serves to provide significant background to a tale that otherwise would be too voluminous or complex to adapt concisely. I can think of a couple of pictures where this works: Kwaidan (1964) and The Third Man (1949). In both films, the voiceovers shed light on the action, providing context for the scenes while not detracting from the story. In fact, the narration in these flicks bolsters their quality, involving us in the plot, grabbing us right from the outset.
Why can’t all movies with narration be like these?
OK, granted, The Third Man and Kwaidan are classics, above and beyond most of their contemporaries. And it’s not as if narration is a new thing; it has been a force in film since sound took hold of the celluloid psyche. Yet these days, it feels more prevalent, and its presence seems more pronounced in the movies of today, as if they’ve taken root like weeds, easily spotted in even the largest, most manicured garden.
Narration tells viewers what to think — of characters, of situations. It comments on the action, archly, breaking the wall separating the audience from the art. It can be valuable, but most often, it’s not, and many films don’t need it. They can tell themselves.
I don’t think there will be a world without this tool. It has become too ingrained in our cinematic fabric to be extricated. But I do hope more filmmakers today start to shy away from it. This is a potential irritant. Use requires careful handling. Expert writing. It’s not for beginners. It’s not for everyone.
And if you’re going to apply it to your films, future directors, let it be done judiciously. Not the way it was used in The Longest Week.
That’s a benchmark I hope few films of the future will reach. I’m not sanguine about the prospects of that happening, though. As long as the lure of narration exists, the chance that it will be utilised horribly is a real possibility.
Too bad. In the right hands, it can be a useful technique. In the right hands.
Let’s hope tomorrow’s filmmakers learn from pictures such as Kwaidan and The Third Man, rather than The Longest Week. At this point, that’s all I can aspire to do in that regard.