2003: Voice-Over Narration and its Disjunctive Relationship with the Film Image

Since the inception of conjunctive sound usage in the Cinema in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, and even before during much of the Silent Period, the technique of vocal accompaniment has occupied a unique place in its relation to the meaning making structures at the very heart of filmic creation. From the film lectures of the early 20th centuries, in which the meaning behind the image was driven by a speaker in front of the screen, to the advent and spread of voice-over narration, the role of non-diegetic vocalization has consistently provided the film text with an interesting complication to the traditional audiovisual relationship. Where other sound techniques generally have relied primarily on unity between the auditory and visual spaces in the creation of meaning, the meaning making structures associated with voice-over have in many ways been focused on disjunction and complication of this relationship to an increasing extent since the early days of Sound Cinema.


Voice-over, by its very nature as a disembodied sound, stands separate from the visual and diegetic space of the film. Meaning, as a result, comes through the repeated conflict between auditory and visual spaces, between the externalized spoken word and the diegetically entrenched image. A constant struggle exists both within and between these two spaces, as each attempts to control the narrative drive of the film. This struggle becomes manifested in many voice-over based films through a series of shifts between conjunction and disjunction, with the narration at times explaining the objective reality of the image while at other times seeming to dictate the more abstract subjective representation of a given shot or sequence. Through this constant movement between objective and subjective presentations. voice-over allows for a unique level of meaning construction in the Cinema. While the conjunctive/objective implementation of voice-over is somewhat self-explanatory, the disjunctive functions of this narrational model follow a variety of different paths, with three functions offering a primary means by which the dissolution of audiovisual linkage is accomplished.


The first of these functions exists in a form that can be best referred to as Textual Disjunction. As its name implies, Textual Disjunction in cinematic voice-over narration relies primarily upon a split between the actual text of the image and sound spaces. In essence, that which is seen becomes abstracted and complicated by the fact that it doesn’t coincide with that which is said. Meaning in the usage of this function is created by the disparity between the auditory and visual spaces, through the forced recognition from the spectator of the inherent subjectivity within the cinematic text. Spectatorial perceptions, under this function, become manipulated and skewed to the point where reality and truth of the text itself is called into question.


One of the clearest examples of Textual Disjunction can be seen in Chris Marker’s 1957 film, Letter from Siberia. While much of the film is devoted to the questioning of voice-over narration’s effect on the spectatorial perception ofthe text, there is a scene late in the film that stands out above all others in regards to this function. Marker, eschewing what narrative concerns were present in the film, repeats a single shot of a city street three times with no variation in the image between the three. With each pass, the narration offers a different perspective on the image, one infused with Soviet ideology, one taking a more Western political stance, and the third offering a seemingly more objective presentation of the events onscreen. Each narration offers a distinct perspective on the visual text, and each seems to work in at least semi-conjunction with the image, yet the dissolution of narrative progression combined with the emphasis on the distance between sound and image spaces serves primarily to force the spectator to question that relationship and the ability of the Cinema to accurately represent the world.  In a very distinct, if somewhat exaggerated fashion, Marker is able to illustrate through this sequence the effects of Textual Disjunction between voice-over and visual space on cinematic representation, forcing an active spectatorial understanding of the audiovisual relationship in regards to meaning making structures.

The second primary function of disjunctive voice-over that of Qualitative Disjunction, relies on a distinctly different approach in the complication of the cinematic representation. Where Textual Disjunction creates meaning by focusing on the audiovisual conflict itself, much of the meaning created through the Qualitative function relies on an interpretation of the sound space itself, and in many ways disregards the visual space to a great degree. Through an examination of the way in which the narration sounds, based on vocal inflections, emotional undertones, and the relationship between the voice-over and the rest of the film’s auditory space, this function allows for a spectatorial understanding of a given scenes meaning based around a more personal and subjective analysis ofthe text. Jean Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, made in 1967, in many ways seems to be the defining example of Qualitative Disjunction in terms of voice-over narration. Godard, as is the case with many of his films, assumes the role of the narrator for 2 or 3 Things, infusing the film with a unique instantiation of his trademark auteurist flourish. Much of the meaning in this film is related through the filmmaker’s narration, both what he says and, in many ways more importantly, how he says it. Spoken in a barely audible whisper, the qualitative aspects of the narration emphasize a sense of insecurity or uncertainty in the narration. Where traditional narrational techniques follow the methodology of infusing the voice-over with authoritative power, Godard in this film creates the sense that the disembodied voice and the externalized perspective over the filmic text that it offers is less than omniscient, that the Cinema requires a more active spectatorial position. At the same time, the isolation of this vocalization in relation to the rest of the film’s auditory and narrative construction serves to isolate it, calling to the auditor’s attention that it doesn’t exist as a part of the film but rather outside, and that meaning in the Cinema comes from externalized interpretation rather than any concrete existence within the cinematic text itself.


The third function in many ways is placed primarily in the direct relationship between the narration and the representations within the image itself. In what can best be termed Gender Disjunction, this function works as a sort of localized offshoot of Qualitative Disjunction, focusing on the way in which the gender of the speaker relates with the sexual representations, masculine and feminine, that exist onscreen and within the narrative. There is a direct correlation in this usage of voice-over between the gender relationships existent between speaker and image and the creation of power-based meaning constructions that underlie the base narrative of the film text.


The role of voice-over in the creation of gender relationships in Sophia Coppola’s 2000 film, The Virgin Suicides in many ways can be seen as a somewhat over analysis of the use of this function in the construction of the film’s meaning. Told through the perspective of a male speaker, yet focusing entirely on the lives and eventual deaths of seven young girls in suburban Michigan, the film seeks throughout to call into question the way in which the female form has been instantiated through cinematic representation.

Voice-over narration, and the long history of non-diegetic vocal accompaniment, is in many ways the clearest and most obvious mode by which this auditory perspective is created, due to the natural primacy it takes in relation to the spectatorial interpretation of a given film. By existing outside the film and often acting as a dominant force in the audiovisual relationship, the functions by which narration is implemented become critical to the construction of representational and meaning making structures in the Cinema. Despite traditionally existing as an indicator of spectatorial complacency, the voice-over occupies an important and unique position in cinematic texts, and its distinct role in the implementation of the auditory perspective should not be overlooked.