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The film deity who knows it all!

Dimitris Passas looks at three dirty movies that breach the rules of objectivity by inserting an omniscient narrator, and injecting the story with high irony and humour

Both film and literature scholars and aficionados are familiar with the term point-of-view (POV)and realise its significance in storytelling. It refers to the perspective from which a story is told; thus it is focused on the subject (the character) and their perception of an event or a situation, putting the audience in their shoes and eventually leading to an increased level of empathy and identification with their emotions, motivations, and actions. Point-of-view can be divided into three distinct forms: first-person, second-person, and third-person while there is also the multiple-viewpoint, a stylistic blend which combines two or more of the aforementioned narrative modes. First-person narration is inextricably linked with subjective cinema and several renowned auteurs have used this particular trope and the associated camera techniques, involving an angle that shows only what the character sees at any given moment, as a way to enhance the audience’s engagement with the protagonists and their feelings. First-person narrative is ideal for shooting vehement dialogue scenes, action sequences, as well as highly subjective images such as dream sequences. Alfred Hitchcock, the Coen brothers, and the Wachowski duo are prime examples of directors who frequently trusted this narrative stance and also employed a number of related tropes such as author insert, subjective narration, cues and character identification, to add tension and suspense in their films. Second-person referrs the point-of-view of the audience (thereby breaking the fourth wall), a device not widely used in film.

Even though first-person POV gained popularity throughout the last decades in cinema, authors and filmmakers until the late 20th and 21st century have always resorted to the third-person narrative viewpoint. If first-person POV equals to subjectivity, then third-person identifies with objectivity, both in cinema and literature. In cinema, filmmakers who embrace this trope use divergent shooting techniques, favouring close-ups, establishing shots, wide shots etc. that reinforce a fairly detached form of storytelling, one that doesn’t dwell on the subjectivity of the characters but relies on the unbiased plot. While there are several distinctions within the third-person narrative stance, I would like to aim attention at the omniscient narration, a form of storytelling that is rarely employed by movie creators nowadays. Omniscient is the Latin compound of omnis (“all”) and sciens (“knowing”), a term that has its roots in religion and more specifically in the monotheistic doctrines as it refers to an all-knowing being, for example the Christian deity, who is also eternal and omnipotent. In the world of fiction writing, an omniscient narrator knows much more than the characters of the featured story, while he is free to switch several distinct points of view without ever sticking to a single one character. The all-knowing voice of the tale-teller relays crucial information to the audience, whose members are always at least one step ahead in comparison with the characters of the story regarding how much they know about the actual plot and what comes next.


Breaking the rules

Omniscient narrative, which can be further divided into limited -where the narrator holds only partial information- and fully knowing – where the narrator has complete knowledge of every character and aspect of the story- is most commonly realised in film through the use of the controversial production technique of voice-over. There are several film scholars and critics who can’t help but cringe at the sound of the word, while many acclaimed screenwriters consider it as a cheap ploy meant to compensate for the lack of plausible storytelling. Voice-over seemingly contradicts the rule dictating: Show, don’t tell, thus many filmmakers remain skeptic concerning its proper use, but this is not always the case. If used wisely, voice-over can show as it tells by revealing something about the story or character beyond what is said without offering tawdry expository bits, but adding to the overall effectiveness of storytelling by doing de facto something more: narrowing the gap between literary and visual language. While first-person narrative voice-overs feature one of the main characters in the role of the narrator, third-person omniscient voice-overs concern a storyteller who is unconnected to the story, unbiased and impartial as it gets, with his solitary voice becoming the guide for the audience in order to grasp every nuance and detail of the featured story. That is what objective cinema is all about: it “makes it look as if the narrator is an outsider or third party who watches the proceedings of the scene in sidelines.”

Omniscient narration is most commonly associated with the concept of dramatic irony, a literary (and filmic) device meaning that the audience knows something more than the characters, frequently critical bits and pieces of information that could turn out to be decisive for the story and its agents. When that happens, a special form of tension is generated and conveyed to the viewers who share a privileged status quo in respect to the onscreen developments. The vehicle through which dramatic irony is conveyed often comes in the form of voice-over narration.

Below, I will probe a bit deeper into three films that break the rules and opt for employing an omniscient, objective narrator, achieving a high level of irony through the employment of the voiceover technique. The outcome is very different, particularly in the third example.


1. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003):

Told in nine chapters and a prologue, Dogville is one of Lars Von Trier’s most celebrated films despite its several specificities that made the Danish director describe this work as a “fusion film”. Trier uses literary as well as theatrical techniques in this sad tale of a young woman who, in her attempt to escape a miserable life, finds safe haven in a little Colorado village where the denizens seem rather kind and forthcoming. However, John Hurt’s mollifying voiceover narration warns us from the beginning that this will be a sad tale, thus putting the audience in an advantageous position while each chapter succeeds a short prologue that exists for purely dramaturgical reasons: creating expectations for the viewers that will later either prove to be valid or not.

Von Trier adds: “The introductory words help to build the arc you have set up if you’re going to conjure up a cinematic experience. It becomes part of the framework.” The ironic element is omnipresent in every form, especially dramatic and situational. In the latter, the actual outcome of an action is the opposite of the intended effect. The theatrical setting, with its outlines demarcated by chalk markings, combined with the Dogma-style handheld camera movement further indicate that Dogville is a unique production drawing inspiration from various fields of artistic and literary activity. The omniscient, voice-over narration offers moments of foreshadowing and as the story reaches its climax, things become all the more unbearable for the protagonist. The cleansing finale and the dog, Moses, barking at the camera with his head held high contribute in the film’s memorability and certify Lars Von Trier’s singular talent in visual storytelling.


2. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994):

One of Stephen King’s most illustrious adaptations into the silver screen, The Shawshank Redemption is still considered as one of the best movies ever shot, even though I find this assessment to be over-the-top. Regardless, Frank Darabont’s story about a man’s struggle for survival and redemption while being incarcerated in a tough penitentiary, is potent in terms of screenplay and will definitely stir your emotions until the finale. The story is narrated by one of the protagonists, Red (Morgan Freeman), however his perspective is closer to the omniscient category as he speaks with the knowledge of what comes next and how the film concludes. Darabont described the adaptation process: “In Shawshank, the novella was written by Stephen King in the first person. I had sought a very amiable folksy feel to the narrative, as if Red himself were telling you the story. Red’s voice was so present to me in the book I really couldn’t imagine the movie without that voice. It just seems very intrinsic to the story telling.” The director’s fears concerning the possibility of becoming the victim of one of the medium’s cardinal sins (“Don’t tell!”) led to his handling Red’s narrative voice in such a manner that made the audience perceive the all-knowing storyteller as authentic and credible. Plus, Morgan Freeman’s drawl helps in setting the film’s tone, not as another gritty and depressing prison drama, but a story that, while it may come across as a tough one, it retains a passionate humanism that becomes evident in the ending.

The Shawshank Redemption is also pictured at the top of this article.


3. Stranger than Fiction (M. Foster, 2006):

The story premise in the case of M. Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction is intriguing enough to give it a try: an ordinary, unremarkable man leading a trite life and working as an IRS auditor, Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) realises that he is the protagonist in the forthcoming novel by author Karren Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Harold can’t stop hearing Eiffel’s voice narrating even the slightest details of his everyday existence. The film’s action is described by the third-person omniscient narrator. The impact of this voice from beyond on Harold’s life ranges from being irritating to completely catastrophic. No man could endure this kind of ordeal, feeling as he is a puppet whose strings belong to the hands of a total stranger, a fictional character created in another person’s mind and imagination.

Ferrell’s lackluster performance and the lack of directorial focus only amplify the problems emanating from a script that may had potential for something better. The attempts at comedy by the creators mostly fall flat on the ground and what eventually remains is a thin veneer of lightness in terms of tone, without additional substantial elements to compensate for the weak screenplay. Forster could have used the voiceover narration as the foundation upon which to build a quirky story about the boundaries between reality and fiction, inserting the element of dramatic irony in the plot and keeping the audience more engaged with what transpires onscreen. however what the audience feels after the end credits roll would be close to awkward, sensing the frustration caused by a missed opportunity.

By Dimitris Passas - 30-08-2023

Born and raised in Athens, Greece, Dimitris’s infatuation with the art of cinema began in early childhood, when he, valiantly defying age restrictions, first came into contact with the work of r...

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