Gareth McLean went for the jugular in Friday’s Guardian here about how TV is “falling back on the tried and tested devices of flashback and voiceover.” TV seems to be more culpable than film at the moment when it comes to shoehorning in such extraneous narrative devices, but in all honesty, I can’t really see what the problem is. The first episode of Pushing Daisies was funny and inventive, and Jim Dale’s voiceover simply added to the kooky charm (the only problem I have with the show is that ITV will not be showing the second episode as they apparently have to cram everything in in time for Euro 2008. So, guess what? If ITV can’t be arsed to show the whole series, I can’t be arsed to watch it. Besides, they could always turf off barrel scraping crud such as Teenage Kicks to make way for it).
That said, I still think voiceovers should be used sparingly, if at all. In Full Metal Jacket, Private Joker’s voiceover is used so little, it’s difficult to remember that it’s there at all – its function seems to be to demarcate act breaks, but even so, if it’s good enough for Kubrick, it should be good enough for the rest of us.
However, the best example of voiceover I can think of is American Psycho – Patrick Bateman’s various voiceovers throughout the film impart information that would be impossible to get any other way. As the entire film is about Bateman’s own peculiar brand of internalised madness, a voiceover is probably the only way to do it. For instance, during a pedicure, Bateman stares impassively at the beauty therapist as the voiceover states:
I have all the characteristics of a human being: flesh, blood, skin, hair – but not a single, clear identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me, and I don’t know why. My nightly bloodlust has overflowed into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.
If you can’t think of any other way to get imperative information across, go for a voiceover. There’s nothing wrong with ‘em in my book.