Cinematic Discourse Notes 13:
Cinematic Narration

A) Does cinema have a narrator?

One of the questions that crop up in discussions of the narrator in cinema is whether the concept, when it is applied to the cinema, should be regarded as an anthropomorphic fiction. This is Bordwell's view in his Narration in the Fiction Film (p. 62; see also, the sub-section Film Narrator?Film Narration from Johann N. Schmidt's “Narration in Film”), and he is not pleased with the association of the cinematic narrator with human beings. Even if we disagree with Bordwell, there is no doubt that there are problems with the concept of the narrator in cinema. An apparent solution is to regard the camera as the narrator. The postulation of the camera as the narrator sidelines the issue of whether human beings are needed for the narrator to exist. It also does away with the belief that language is needed for the narrator to tell a story to us. One question that arises here is whether there is such a thing as a 'seeing' narrator who does not speak to us. However, if anthropomorphism is a problem, isn't the ?seeing? camera (the simulation of human sight) also a problem?

B) Comparisons with narration in written language

The concept of the narrator is less of a problem in written language. But this does not mean that the concept can be unproblematically transferred to cinematic discourse. Nevertheless, in spite of some significant differences between the two media  ?  especially when one looks at the details  ?  there are some general similarities between the concepts of narrator in written language and film. Even in written narrative literature, for example, the narrator need not be entirely anthropomorphic: the concept of the third-person narrator, when contrasted to that of the first-person narrator, is non-anthropomorphic, as it is, strictly speaking, a narrative device, and does not refer to a character with obvious human traits.

However, there are significant differences too. The third-person narrator in written narrative conveys more than just physical perspective. It may tell us what a character thinks, feels etc., and occasionally, it may even convey its own attitudes towards the characters and events in the narrative. In this respect, the camera, because it cannot resort to language, cannot comment like the third-person narrator. Thus it is more limited and more passive in its interaction with the external environment than the third-person narrator of written fiction. The third-person narrator's use of language suggests that the presence of the narrator may be linked to language, and there is no narrator if language is not used.

C) The implied author

In between the author and the narrator is the implied author. The concept of the implied author is useful for the analysis of cinematic discourse, as the unitary ‘author’ of a film is difficult to pin down. In this regard, the implied author may be, in theory at least, an even more useful concept than the corresponding concept in prose fiction. It may resolve some of the difficulties involved in the analysis of authorship (which was discussed in lecture 8) by not looking for an actual authorial agent outside the text, which, of course, very frequently numbers more than one.

The concept of the implied author, not only for the analysis of literary fiction, but for cinematic analysis as well, has been defended by Seymour Chatman in his book Coming to Terms (Chapter 5). Chatman believes that there is an agent, even if it is only a fictional postulation, that brings all the elements of a film together, and the term used for the analysis of written narratives, implied author, can be used for this

The concept of the implied author, however, is not accepted by all scholars for the analysis of film. Bordwell, for example, in his Narration in the Fiction Film (p. 62), disagrees with Chatman’s advocacy of the implied author. Bordwell is of the view that the term, implied author, as it stands, cannot be used unproblematically for the analysis of film. To him, just like the problem with the term narrator, the use of the concept of the implied author for film is another anthropomorphic fiction.

D) The image-maker

The concept of the implied author is not exactly the same when compared to its use in the analysis of written fiction, as it includes the visual element. For this reason, Sarah Kozloff has called the implied author of film the image-maker, who is the moral/ideological agency of what is presented in the film. Kozloff's term image-maker thus also has a relationship with the concept of the narrator in written literature. As the term narrator can be quite confusing or inappropriate for the analysis of film, the term image-maker can thus be used instead. Although the term implied author does not suffer the same problem as the narrator, the term image-maker is more appropriate, as it highlights the visual aspect of cinematic narration.

E) Importance of voiceover narration

Voiceover narration is important in the study of cinematic discourse in general and cinematic narration in particular (the term voiceover narration is sometimes called, simply voice-over – remember our discussion on the other modes of discourse in film apart from narrative in the first lecture?). In this light, it is quite unlike speech in cinematic conversational interaction, as it is speech that is apparently addressed to us and stands on its own. It is not addressed to someone else within the film, except for some exceptions in first-person voiceover narration (see below), . Thus voiceover narration has a commanding presence in the film, and Kaja Silverman has called it a ‘voice on high’. In this light, voiceover narration is the dominant speaking position in a film when compared to other speaking positions, as it is addressed to the audience.  In the hierarchy of speaking positions, it encompasses and is higher than the conversational interactions between characters in a film, whose addressers and addressees are located in the storyworld of the film, and do not directly address the audience.

F) Narrators and narration only occur with voiceover narration?

Some scholars have argued, eg. Avrom Fleishman, that cinema can only be narrated if there is a voiceover narrator: if there is no voiceover narrator, the film should be described as unnarated or non-narrated (see his book, Narrated Films). Using the same argument as that advanced by Fleishman – that films without voiceover narrators are unnarrated – it can also be said that narrators exist only in films that have voiceover narrators. Of course, the view that narrators or even narration itself only occurs with voiceover narration is debatable

G) Voiceover narration need not be first-person

Although voiceover narration and first-person narration may appear superficially similar, there are significant differences between them. Voiceover narration in film need not only be first-person, it can also be third-person. Voiceover narration is not necessarily carried out by a character in the story (first-person narrator) but also by a person or disembodied voice who is not a character in the story (third-person narrator). First-person voiceover narration and third-person voiceover narration are thus two major categories of voiceover narration. It also needs to be noted, in relation to an observation made in an earlier section, that third-person voiceover narration is invariably addressed to the audience. However, first-person voiceover narration, although it is still addressed to the audience, may also be addressed to another character. First-person voiceover narration addressed to the character occurs when a character tells a story to another character, and the story continues orally, with the voiceover, but departs from the conversational interaction itself, without the addresser and addressee being shown.

H) Other possible characteristics of voiceovers

A voiceover may not be for an entire film. Instead of a single overall voiceover narrator for a film, there might be more than one, and some of them appear for a short stretch or stretches in the film. Voiceovers may thus be associated with more than one character, and the short stretch or stretches of voiceover narration does not represent the single perspective from which the entire film is viewed. In this regard, it is quite different from first-person and third-person narration in written narratives, which occurs in relation to entire novels.

Another possible characteristic of voiceovers is that they may also represent written language, and is not restricted to spoken language or to the verbalisation of thought processes. There may be several reasons for verbalising written language. Written language by itself may appear too stiff and aloof. So a ‘spoken’ version of written language may give a more relaxed and casual feel to the cinematic discourse. Verbalising written language may also be concomitantly more appealing and entertaining than written language by itself.

It has been noted, especially by feminist film scholars, that voiceover narrators in film are mainly male. We may want to relate this to the view of Kaja Silvermann earlier, who describes voiceover narration as a ‘voice on high’. The ‘height’ here does not merely involve the voiceover's address to the audience and the inclusion of the content of what is being said by other voices in the film in the voiceover narration, but it also represents a higher social position.

I) Some characteristics of first-person voiceover narration

Intimacy in first-person voiceover narration is achieved by the voice of a character who is not merely a technical device, thus helping to give the cinematic discourse a more human and less mechanical touch. Thus the first-person voiceover narrator is not merely a perfunctory explanatory or expository voice associated with what is shown by the camera, but belongs to a flesh-and-blood character, at least within the world conjured by the cinematic discourse.

The discrepancy between what is said by the first-person voiceover narrator and what is seen – or what has been or will be seen – by the audience, may in fact be a technically inherent in first-person voiceover narration in the cinematic medium. The sayer and seer of first-person voiceover narratives are very often not located in the same site: This results in the technically anomalous situation where the camera quite often looks at the first-person voiceover narrator, instead of looking from the voiceover narrator's physical perspective. This intrinsic technical dislocation of perspective and voice, especially in relation to the first-person narrator, may be the reason why some people regard voiceover narration as 'crude' or clumsy. Due to its ‘crudeness’, voiceover narration (both first- and third-person) for entire movies is quite often avoided.

The dislocation of what is said by the first-person voiceover narrator and what is seen on the screen in may also result in irony. This is achieved by the mismatch between what is mentioned by the voiceover narrator and what can be seen to be going on in the narrative. The personage narrating does not always or entirely perceive things as they are, but may perceive them from a prejudiced or innocent perspective, resulting in the discrepancy between what is said and what the camera reveals to the audience. What is seen may often be more ‘truthful’ and complete than what is said by the voiceover narrator.

I would like to end these notes quizzically: first-person voiceover narrators, because they are characters in a film, are mortal. But will they always cease to speak once they are dead, as dead men tell no tales? If they do, what is the reason for their continued speech?


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Last revised: 11 August 2018.