Monday, 5 December 2011


An entry in the Glossary project

Ever-cautious about confusing issues of authorship and ownership, Nanneman did not provide a facility for voiceovers within his movie-making kit, claiming that "audiences are wont to recognise the perpetrator of a movie voiceover as the owner of the images and their subsidiary ideas and emotions regardless of the fact that the voice belongs to a fictional character with limited proprietary rights." However, it did not take long for his city council colleagues to find a 'cheat': a specific combination of one of the shyest character types placed into a busy set (where they would inevitably recede behind other visual matter) and pumped full of third-person dialogue. It appeared, when this cheat was being used, that a voiceover was being read by some unseen, all-seeing character when in fact this effect was achieved by specifically generating a self-effacing character with a high intuition level-setting. A cruder version of this cheat, known as a "feelings voiceover", involved partially-hidden characters screaming, grunting or verbalising emotions in sympathy with the surrounding images: Nanneman was not impressed, pointing out that there were plenty of pure feelings to choose from within the Catalogue without having to resort to ambiguous vocal effects.

Unusually, Nanneman was in agreement with Francis Dove concerning the rejection of voiceover, albeit for different reasons. In his (apparently ad lib) narration of an educational video on the history of film, an increasingly distressed-sounding Dove offers the theory that voiceover is first experienced as the third-person narration of one’s own development i.e. as a baby listening to one's parents; that this early exposure to voiceover is an over-clinical yet disorienting affair following the abstract aural experience of womb life; and that indeed, should we choose to go back that far, it all goes downhill after one's respective gametes are rocked by the soundwaves of pleasure or relief that accompany the procreative act. Three-fifths of the way through the same educational video, just after describing Harley Byrne’s notorious documentary Girls of Unfortunate Climes*, Dove declares the voiceover "dead", himself remaining silent for the rest of the programme apart from the occasional faint chewing sound.

Aside from his pathological distrust of certainty - which he identified as a recurrent yet undesirable characteristic of the movie voiceover - Dove had several recent examples of the voiceover-in-breakdown to inspire this moratorium. In Harris Metcalf's Clockwork Film it quickly becomes clear from the way they move that the supporting characters, as the result of a technical fault, can hear the hero's voiceover, though not make out the words he's saying - only cadence and timbre. Their actions become an involuntary dance to an obscure song whose near synchronization with the unfolding events (which the voiceover of course describes) occurs to them as a déjà vu. Metcalf attempted to improve on his "mechanically-generated" filmmaking technique with Clockwork II, but this time the hero - who is retrospectively narrating the images in which he appears - runs out of things to say mid-way through. The on-screen action slows to a halt and, to fill the time, our screen-hero himself starts to dance, accompanied intermittently by the rather amateurish beat-boxing attempts of his narrator alter-ego. After a while, the screen-hero runs out of moves and sits down for the rest of the movie, while the other characters develop a subplot.

Witness also Nola Luna IV's Takashi From End To End, the unauthorised feature-length biopic of her eponymous ex-boyfriend, in which Luna herself provides the "narration": the off-screen parroting of Takashi's every spoken line with sounds like "muh" and "mur" pronounced in what is undoubtedly neither her own natural voice nor a strictly accurate impersonation of Takashi himself.

*(in which Byrne's authoritative narration, rewriting events in his own voice, was committed to tape in apparent denial of the trauma of having been imprisoned and tortured by the feral teens he was documenting; a digital stutter on surviving copies seems, however, to express through technical fault that which Byrne was unwilling or unable to acknowledge in the text.)

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