Anyone who has ever studied film is familiar with the various arguments either for or against the use of voice-over in a film. It’s a debate I hadn’t considered seriously in some time, at least not until I revisited the Ulrich Edel film Christiane F.(1982). The voice over in this film, particularly in the film’s opening, is utterly redundant and has probably provided me with sufficient motivation to avoid the device. However, there have been instances where a voice-over has aided in the construction of a film’s atmosphere and context, such as Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven (1978).
The difference in the success of this aesthetic employment is a result of the manner in which the voice-over is scripted. The voice-over in Christiane F. narrates, in the most literal of terms, what is going on within the frame and is therefore redundant. While Malick’s voice-over describes a point of view and events unseen by the camera, that are the subjective observations of a character within the film.
Typically, most audiences and critics cite Andrei Tarkovsky as the master of emoting the diverse realm of the human spirit with the images in his narrative films, but I find that the same is equally true and just as prevalent in Terence Malick’s filmography. Even The Tree Of Life resembles Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975), and not just in its unconventional structure or in its fusion of a tangible reality with the fantastic. What’s most important to the spiritual potency in the films of Malick and Tarkovsky is the perfect hybrid of sound and image.
In most films, this marriage of technology is directed to articulating an aspect of the narrative. Walter Murch’s work on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) is a prime example of this intent. Every sound on the audio track gives the image a sense of space in our own shared reality, lending to the film’s narrative credibility. If Gene Hackman’s character lifts a toilet seat, the sound will be exaggerated, though only slightly, to suggest the weight, material, and all of the other details associated with the object and the room that it inhabits.
Contrary to this traditional approach is Terrence Malick. Malick takes what Tarkovsky has done before and pushes it further into the abstract, which in this case is the world of the human consciousness. Malick’s Days Of Heaven (1979) has the most obvious example of this tactic at work. When Linda Manz’s character enters Middle America atop of a rail car we see first her face, then what she is seeing. What she sees is a sea of grain at magic hour, a golden ocean of grass expanding as far as the eye or the camera can see. In conjunction with these images are a mix of subtle diegetic sounds, non-diegetic music, and a voice over that sits on top of the mix. This image of nature and the suggestion of a tangible world provided by the diegetic sound suggest a familiar reality. But this reality becomes an unreal and expressionistic manifestation of the interior of the character’s mind. Though this may seem like the old parlor trick of any seasoned filmmaker, Malick’s films find a new spiritual depth in such moments largely because of his genius for choosing images of nature that are powerful, other worldly and yet familiar.
It’s this familiarity that sets Malick’s work apart from that of Tarkovsky. When Tarkovsky’s films began to probe more philosophical and spiritual issues more explicitly with Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), such powerful images were manufactured in part by the genre of the films, science fiction. The Mirror along with Tarkovsky’s later films come closer to what Malick is able to achieve, though Tarkovsky never really abandoned the more conventional approach to wedding sound with image in his films.
One could argue that in only a few cases is a voice-over like the one described in Days Of Heaven truly an asset to a film. The instances in which the device appears and does not hinder the progression of the film or fill it out with information that is neither vital nor extraordinary seems to be in films that are either highly stylized or whose narrative mandates the use of the device. If one considers Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) for a moment, the benefits of the device quickly become apparent. For it is through the voice-over that Kubrick establishes a literary reflexivity in his film that is indicative not only of the setting of the film’s narrative, but the manner in which the period is so heavily Romanticized. In terms of a utilitarian service provided by the device one need only look to Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) and its subsequent imitators as well as Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). In both instances these two films employ voice-over to signify the subjective recollections of characters in the films, even if at times the characters recollect shared experiences.
Malick has never really changed his approach to sound, but he has found more dynamic images for his moments of spiritual contemplation. The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005) are both films dominated by the most grandiose of trees whose dominion over the frame is over whelming, though their natural beauty is never undeniable to the audience. Such elements of the natural world, when presented in this manner, become representations of complicated emotions experienced by characters within the films, though they are never verbally articulated in the film; they never really have to be.