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Voices in Your Head

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Voices in Your Head

My esteemed colleague Edward Copeland, who publishes Edward Copeland on Film, has been on an anti-Malick jihad. In a post titled, “Let me bash on Malick a bit more,” he indicated that Malick’s movie has been the beneficiary of widespread, knee-jerk praise, which is actually not the case. The reviews fall into the three categories: effusive (like mine), respectful but baffled, and sneeringly hostile.

As gleefully excerpted on Copeland’s blog, the latter’s ranks include Variety’s Todd McCarthy (“While the tale of first contact between Englishmen and the ’naturals,’ as the Brits felicitously refer to the Native Americans, might seem to play to the strengths of the meticulous and unhurried director, Malick’s exalted visuals and isolated metaphysical epiphanies are ill-supported by a muddled, lurching narrative, resulting in a sprawling, unfocused account of an epochal historical moment”); Devin Faraci of CHUD (”…a film that seeks to undermine every bit of plot advancement with meandering and pointless shots of nothing in particular…by the end of The New World, all I had were flashbacks to Mystery Science Theater as I hissed at the screen, Tom Servo style, ’End! End!’”), and USA Today’s Mike Clark (“That sound you’re about to hear is the cracking of spines as Terrence Malick enthusiasts like me bend over backward trying to cut The New World a break”).

But the quote that really chapped my hide is this one from Erik Childress, a funny and original critic who seems to have drifted light years away from the basics of film history with this bizarre statement:

“It’s time for Malick fans to have a serious gut-check and compare notes on precisely what they are praising. How often do we read of films with unnecessary narration, treating the audience as dummies with needless exposition and inner monologues that have scholars screaming ’don’t say it, show it.’ Malick plays both sides, showing everything with minimalist dialogue, characterization and narrative and then using not one but multiple narrators all jockeying for position over whose story this really is. There’s no reason it can’t be about Smith, Hontas and John Rolfe (Christian Bale) who shows up nearly two hours in to take over monologuing duties. As written by Malick though, the more we hear their inner thoughts the more distant we become to who they are and what drives their course of action.”

Holy shit. And I thought I was capable of being obtuse. Childress describes Malick’s use of “…multiple narrators all jockeying for position over whose story this really is” as if it’s a mistake or a bad thing or somehow an indication that he couldn’t make up his mind whose story it was, when in fact it’s the key to understanding the film. The New World is all about fighting over the right to claim authorship, not just of a story, but individual lives, and the lives of villages, tribes and nations, and an entire continent. And he describes the distancing effect of the characters’ inner thoughts as if it’s a bad thing, an unpleasant byproduct of directorial incompetence, rather than as what it actually is, a conscious artistic choice.

This whole “Show, don’t tell” bullshit, propagated not just by clueless critics but also by reductive, factory-minded screenwriting gurus like Syd Field and Robert McKee, flies in the face of movie history, which is filled with examples of films where narration is not merely defensible, but vital to the film’s effects.

Narration is not solely employed to fill in backstory or paper over plot holes, etc (uses to which Malick almost never puts it, as anyone who’s actually paying attention already knows). It is also employed—deliberately, carefully—to frame the story as a literary, past tense work (Barry Lyndon, The Royal Tenenbaums), to create emotional distancing effects (Hiroshima Mon Amour), to set up whopping surprises (Fight Club) or to suggest ominiscence, thereby framing the story as a collective, civilization-wide event rather than a story that happens to just one central figure (the strategy in all Malick’s films, particularly his last two). The above examples describe not passive, lazy narration, but active or contrapuntal narration. (For more, see yesterday’s “5 for the Day” item.)

You may not agree with the director’s reasons for employing contrapuntal narration. You may not think he achieved what he set out to achieve. But to pretend that simply using narration that way—to deliberately “take people out of the movie”—is somehow unacceptable, wrong or bad exposes not Malick’s folly, but the writer’s ignorance.

The following is an adaptation of notes I wrote prior to introducing a screening of Hiroshima Mon Amour at the Museum of the Moving Image yesterday. I hope it will stand as at least a partial refutation of some of the arguments advanced by Malick’s detractors, who are—despite being lovely people, I’m sure—one hundred percent wrong on this specific point.

Show, don’t tell, say the movie experts. The experts include screenwriting guru Robert McKee, ably impersonated by Brian Cox in a scene from Adaptation, a comedy about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman (the film’s actual author, portrayed by Nicolas Cage) that also happens to be the definitive film text about screenwriting in Hollywood.

“I’m pathetic,” Charlie thinks to himself in voice-over, while brooding in the audience at one of McKee’s pricey lectures. “I’m a loser. I have failed. I am panicked. I’ve sold out, I am worthless, I… What the fuck am I doing here? What the fuck am I doing here? Fuck. It is my weakness, my ultimate lack of conviction that brings me here. Easy answers used to shortcut yourself to success. And here I am because my jump into the abysmal well…Isn’t that just a risk one takes when attempting something new? I should leave here right now. I’ll start over. I need to face this project head on, and…”

Suddenly McKee’s thunderous voice cuts off Charlie’s thoughts in midstream: “…and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.”

That’s pretty much gospel in commercial cinema. Show, don’t tell. Narration is lazy, or at best, functional. The best kind of storytelling, the highest form of storytelling, is to let us look at the pictures and form our own opinions of what happens, what it means, and what the character might be thinking.

That’s fine, insofar as it goes. But it doesn’t go all that far, really. Yes, movie history is filled with examples of narration that’s either purely functional (introducing major characters, filling in back story, papering over cracks in the present-tense narrative) or else redundant (telling us things we can already see just by looking at the images). And yes, those types of narration are generally irritating. unnecessary and passive.

But some narration is central, necessary and active. It achieves specific psychological, dramatic and aesthetic effects that pictures can’t achieve on their own. I am speaking of “active narration,” or more specifically, “contrapuntal narration,” as in counterpoint.

Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) is arguably the wellspring of contrapuntal narration in modern cinema. Originally envisioned as a documentary about the aftermath of Hiroshima—an intent that manifests itself in the movie’s opening sequence, in which the heroine presumes to understand the horror of Hiroshima based on having visited a museum commemorating the catastrophe—this film became something else once the young screenwriter Marguerite Duras got involved.

There are two types of narration in Hiroshima: dialogue that becomes narration (the lovers talking in bed while Resnais cuts to images from the Hiroshima exhibits), and internal monologue (in the last section, when the heroine thinks to herself while looking in the mirror or walking away from her lover). Duras’ fragmented, hazy, poetic narration—coupled with Resnais’ pioneering use of flash cuts, which dip into the past without the usual visual warnings (an equally revolutionary technique that deserves a whole other essay)—represents not redundant or functional narration, but a vain attempt to come to grips with the unruly and terrifying power of the past.

To watch this heavily narrated movie is to get very close—arguably as close as movies have gotten—to the experience of trying to remember something in detail, in willed, very specific, very emotional context, and failing.

In such films there is a difference between what the narrator wishes to achieve by remembering and what he or she actually does achieve. In Hiroshima, contrapuntal narration and disjointed, elliptical chronology merge, creating not a straightforward linear narrative, but an intellectual and emotional experience, one that simultaneously unfolds along parallel, coexisting but forever disconnected tracks. Two lovers, two marriages, two cities, two theaters of war, two traumas, and last but not least, two different planes of existence.

Resnais and Duras use active narration to distinguish between the transformatively powerful pasts that the French heroine wishes to imagine (her Japanese lover’s, and the city of Hiroshima’s) or re-experience (her own past, specifically a doomed love between her and a German soldier) and the cool, jagged fragments of memory and empathy that she is actually able to conjure up. The intense emotion she experiences in the present is undermined or contradicted by the flashbacks, which are generally brief. soundless and unsastifying. “Hiroshima,” critic Barry Forshaw writes, show us “…how history and the past are always seen through present eyes; and likewise the writing of history-as-narrative is wrought with the imperfections of language, memory and history itself.”

All narration does, in some sense, take us out of the movie. At the very least, it pulls us away from fully identifying with the narrating character, or fully immersing ourselves in the world depicted onscreen. But that’s not a failure of narration, it’s a deliberate effect, one that gets cinema very close to claiming a particular prerogative that some theorists always said was beyond its reach: to dip in and out of individual minds and juxtapose one person’s self-perceived. first person limited world with the world outside, the supposedly “real” or “objective” world.

Contrapuntal narration is narration that pushes against the images in some way and then combines with them to produce an emotional effect that pictures alone could not achieve. This strategy is a hallmark of modernism. All films that employ active narration have chosen, as their true subject, perception itself.

Hiroshima Mon Amour is all about perception. Its startling combination of flash cuts and distancing narration, both deployed without audience hand-holding of any kind, arguably makes it the first truly modern movie. All actively narrated movies, all chronologically fractured movies, owe a debt to this one.

Matt Zoller Seitz is founder of The House Next Door.