Saturday, March 10, 2012

Cut The Red Wire! (& Other Lessons)


After writing up a review for Y Tu Mamá También all those many moons ago, it occurred to me just how rare it is to find a movie with really spot on narration. Too often narration is used as a quick and easy cheap ploy to get some exposition out of the way so the real movie can begin. You know what I'm talking about. The Lord Of The Rings style kangaroo-pocket story that gives us a little prelude to understanding the rest of the film. We forgive it because it's Cate Blanchett and she can do no wrong, but this isn't really narration at its finest. A good narrator isn't thrown in there to save time with easy exposition--a good narrator sets the tone and the pace of the story. They keep us hooked, adding a degree of spice to an already delicious story. In honor of all that is great in narration, I've compiled a quick list of some of my top examples of narration done right. In no particular order...

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Quote: "I tell him about destiny; he's shaking his head. About dreamgirls; he doesn't care. I mention the underwear thing? He has a fucking conniption. And you? How 'bout it, filmgoer? Have you solved the case of the - the dead people in L.A.? Times Square audiences, please don't shout at the screen, and stop picking at that, it'll just get worse."
Lesson: Robert Downey Jr. should narrate everything. Between his voice, his character, and the sharp, witty lines he pulls out effortlessly, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is really a lesson in good, engaging, colorful screenwriting.

Snatch (2000)
Quote: "If Gorgeous doesn't wake up in the next few minutes, Tommy knows he'll be buried with him. Why would the gypsies go through the trouble of explaining why a man died in their campsite when they can bury the pair of them and just move camp? It's not like they got social security numbers, is it? Tommy--the tit--is praying. And if he isn't, he fucking should be."
Lesson: Speaking of colorful screenwriting. It's really hard to get any more colorful than Guy Ritchie. His narration runs like his dialogue--with the fast bullet clip and the subtle near lyrical poetry. He's the "William Fuckin' Shakespeare" of London gutter talk.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Quote: "The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis...out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion."
Lesson: Now this is murder noir done right. End of story. Not only is the writing beautiful on its own, it keeps us rooting for the main character. We can't help but be entranced by Joe Gillis, even as his character descends in a steep downwards spiral.

Forrest Gump (1994)
Quote: "We was always taking long walks, and we was always looking for a guy named "Charlie"."
Lesson: Forrest Gump is, of course, the ultimate feel good movie. Why else is it on TV every other day? If you want to learn how to write a movie that will just make people feel good, watch this one a couple hundred times. But the real brilliance of the narration in Forrest Gump is not in its Hallmark "life is like a box of chocolates" bits. The talent is all in how well they manipulate dramatic irony, listening to Forrest tell his story while a very different vision of reality plays out on the screen. It's funny at times, moving at other times, and ultimately tells us everything we need to know about Forrest: "stupid is as stupid does."

Apocalypse Now (1979)
Quote: "If that's how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn't just insanity and murder; there was enough of that to go around for everyone."
Lesson: Francis Ford Coppola is a cheater. He somehow manages to use narration as an expositional tool, which would normally grate on my nerves, yet he makes it work. It keeps the dark, noir style of the movie in line and never lets us go. Note to self: never try to be as good as Francis Ford Coppola, you will fail.

Honorable mentions:
Fight Club (1999)
Would've included it in the initial list, but it's based off a book and that somehow feels like cheating.
Adaptation (2002)
Also known as: every screenwriter's constant monologue.

Now I think I'm going to reward myself with a muffin. Anyone else have other great examples of movie narration they want to throw at me?


  1. Awesome list! KKBB's narration is probably my favorite ever, it's just so effortlessly funny.

    Some of my other favorites are Hugh Grant in ABOUT A BOY- mostly because I really get his grossed-out feelings around children and his condescension toward other humans in general- and Momoko's narration in KAMIKAZE GIRLS, since she's so funny in her disdain for everything around her and her lack of interest in basic emotions.

    Hmm. I guess I like narrators who are jerks to everyone. Cool.

    1. Thanks! It really doesn't get any better than KKBB. The script is hilarious, RDJ is hilarious, I'm sold.

      Damn, I haven't seen About A Boy in years. I'm pretty sure I remember enjoying it, but I should refresh that memory. And any movie called Kamikaze Girls peeks my interest, I have to get on that.

      Narrators who are jerks are really the best kind! There's nothing better than a sarcastic, bitter fly on the wall.

  2. I like the narration (however much there is) in these movies too:

    A Clockwork Orange
    Plan 9 from Outer Space
    Million Dollar Baby
    The Incredible Shrinking Man
    Double Indemnity
    The Time Machine (1960)
    The Boy with Green Hair
    All About Eve
    The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
    The War of the Worlds (1953)
    It Came from Outer Space
    Moby Dick (1956)
    Princess Bride
    Stand By Me
    Shawshank Redemption

    Great post!

    1. Dammit, now I'm kicking myself for not including some of these. A Clockwork Orange I can forgive myself for with the whole "based off a book" excuse, but I can't really make any excuses for not including Goodfellas and Princess Bride. Great list! I do love me some well-done narration.

  3. Ah what a great idea for a list, and I love your choices, although I am not particularly fond of the "from the grave" narration a la Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty.

    I detest narration that describes exactly what is happening on the screen (Sex and the City, anyone...) but some of my favorites are Taxi Driver, Casino, Sleepers and The Thin Red Line. But I could go on and on.

    Great stuff!

    1. Thanks! I can agree with you that the "from the grave" narration is a little tedious, but his voice in Sunset Boulevard is too good to pass up.

      Another good list! I've got to agree with you, that narration is usually a bummer. However, definitely excellent narration picks!