Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Wednesday, August 20, 2021

I went to see Woody Allen’s latest opus, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the other night.

Based on Allen’s recent fare, I was expecting an above-average night at the movies, but with the by-now customary shortcomings in comprehensive plotting and structure. And I was right: The character studies were pleasant enough, the cinematography was full of enough pretty people (big hello there to one of my favorites in that category, Penélope Cruz) and places to keep me engaged — but ultimately, the story delivery fell short of anything even remotely satisfying.

One thing I wasn’t expecting, and was particularly let down by, was the use of a voiceover narrator. This cinematic storytelling technique is doing a slow-creep spread throughout movieland, and its appearance in this film exemplifies why the trend should be stopped:

…The use of an omniscient narrator telling the story [is] a technique infinitely more common (for obvious reasons) on the page than on the screen: Books tell us stories, while movies are supposed to be all about showing them.

Another reason voiceover narration in film is more often than not obtrusive is because it’s frequently applied after-the-fact to films that have clarity problems – or films that are perceived by doltish studio execs as having clarity problems, as with Blade Runner – which is clearly not the case here.

Still, I have mixed feelings about Allen’s implementation. Allen’s most famous use of a narrative voiceover was his own character Alvy in Annie Hall. So, at first, I kept expecting one of the characters here to eventually be revealed as the narrator. Even after I gave up on that, the technique is problematic: Along with the multiple POVs, it’s the main mechanism keeping us from direct identification with either Vicky or Cristina, let alone Juan Antonio or Maria Elena.

I wouldn’t cite Annie Hall as a prime example of the voiceover. Alvy Singer was relating his life story, and his insertion into the onscreen action was appropriately limited. I would point more to Husbands and Wives as an Allen precedent; even though in that film the narrator was an active agent in the storyline (as a documentary filmmaker), he really wasn’t there for much other reason that to tie together the context.

It might have worked in Allen’s previous efforts, but not here. And that failure rate seems constant — the other late high-profile application was in Little Children, with a similarly disappointing result.

To me, this type of omniscient narration in a movie is nothing more than a crutch that makes up for a lack of better-executed scripting and pacing in a movie. It results in spoon-fed storytelling that does do what a film is supposed to do: Illustrate a story with inline words and pictures, not with help from a detached voice-from-above.

by Costa Tsiokos, Wed 08/20/2008 07:59:04 PM
Category: Movies
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