October 20, 2014

How Terrence Malick Wins at Existential Voiceover Narration

Tree of Life - Terrence Malick
Terrence Malick is a polarizing figure in the filmmaking world.

Some laud him for his existential and introspective style of filmmaking, while others decry his recent films for lacking in narrative substance. Whatever your take on Malick, it's hard to deny that the man has a distinctive style that is uniquely his own. His films are often overflowing with gorgeous photography of the natural world, characters battling personal and existential crises, and of course, copious amounts of voiceover narration.

In a recent video essay, Scott Tobias and Kevin B. Lee explored the history and evolution of Terrence Malick's use of voiceover in his films, and the result is an intriguing look into the ways voiceover acting can have a profound impact on the content and ultimate meaning of your films.

Voiceovers have long been a tool employed by filmmakers in order to bridge gaps in the narrative or to take us inside the head of a certain character. However, Malick uses the voiceover in ways unlike any other filmmaker out there. Almost never does he use the technique to provide exposition or to explicitly tell us how a character is feeling in any given moment.

Instead, Malick uses the voiceover in order to give voice to the internal struggles and existential dilemmas of his characters. However abstract these voiceovers may seem, they more often than not provide instant and recognizable access to the challenging philosophical themes and questions that his films ponder. And that's where Malick's use of voiceovers can be considered brilliant. He uses them to instantaneously transport viewers to the heart of his films, and to ask questions that otherwise might not have been asked.

Are you a fan of Malick and his use of voiceovers? What are some of your favorite uses of voiceover throughout cinema history? Let us know down in the comments!     

Your Comment

14 Comments

The Tree Of Life script looks something like this:

"INT. SUBURBAN HOME - DAY
Depressed A-list celebrities sit around a kitchen table looking sad.

NARRATOR
Why? Why is "why" not the only thing that can't be explained? What,
more are explanations than expectations viewed through the lens
of internal demise... Investigation leads to discovery of lost thoughts...

EXT. SPACE
A supernova explodes erasing an entire solar system

EXT. PLAYGROUND - DAY
Brad Pitt pushes a little boy on a swing set. He looks very depressed and sad.

INT. HOSPITAL - NIGHT
A famous woman runs in slow motion down a hallway, she is crying

INT. ATTIC OF AN OLD HOUSE
A small rocking chair sits abandon in the middle of the room

INT. DINING ROOM - DAY
More sad celebrities look depressed together

EXT. DRY RIVER BED - CRETACEOUS PERIOD
Some motherf**king dinosaurs do shit and a big metiorite streaks through the sky.

INT. BATHROOM - NIGHT
An old woman examines her crow's feet in the mirror. She is very depressed.

NARRATOR
Why? When we think thoughts, we so seldom think about thought

EXT. CEMETARY - DAY
More depressed celebrities sad at a funeral gather around a grave. One by one they through donuts at the casket. There is also a midget on a unicycle, he is depressed too..."

October 20, 2014 at 7:40PM

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Angus Lyne
Filmmaker and VFX generalist
315

I take it you're not found of Malick...

October 20, 2014 at 8:04PM

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Emerson Shaw
Student
646

I could not love this comment anymore haha... Beautiful images but easily the most painful movie i have ever sat through in theaters. I just kept looking for something of value in it other than the cast and cinematography, but it never came. I honestly remember feeling cheated, even angry when it finally ended. Maybe it was just too 'personal' for it to really mean anything to me but i couldn't help but feel like it was a, for lack of a better way to put it, selfish film. Like he just tricked us all into sitting there for 3 hrs, watching him play out his inner ramblings. Which is fine i suppose, but i think the trailers and fact that it had a big theatrical release mislead a lot of people into going along for the ride. If it was clear all along what the film was really like, i think would have opted out. Can't help but imagine a few people on the production and the studio felt the same.

October 21, 2014 at 2:34AM, Edited October 21, 2:34AM

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Steve Conry
Director / DP
86

I completely understand what you mean. Personally, it's all about what you bring into a film and where you're at in life when you watch one of Malick's works. I remember seeing 'The Tree of Life' in theatres and I was probably 15 at the time. For some reason I was profoundly moved by a director who had the guts to put so much of his life on screen. I just saw 'The Thin Red Line' last year for the first time and remember thinking I had been slipped a copy of National Geographic - Rainforest Special. There was nothing to connect with for me in that film, even though it was incredibly visually arresting. Some hate Malick because of his self indulgence, but if there's anything in his films that can relate to you, it can be one of the most powerful moments in cinema. I guess that's what makes filmmaking such a powerful art form: the ability to absorb or completely isolate viewers no matter how small or insignificant the images may be (or not be).

October 21, 2014 at 9:22AM

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Emerson Shaw
Student
646

There is MUCH more to the movie than this.

October 21, 2014 at 9:12PM

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There's an opinion stated by some people that voiceover is an extremely lazy tool in filmmaking. They're so wrong.

October 20, 2014 at 8:14PM, Edited October 20, 8:14PM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
1471

I agree, but I think it goes both ways. When voiceovers are used to tell the audience what a character is thinking or feeling, or when it's used to reveal key pieces of exposition, then it can be described as lazy since all of that can be conveyed visually. With Malick, on the other hand, voiceovers are an essential part of how he riffs on philosphical and existential themes, so to say he's being lazy by telling instead of showing is a bit naive.

October 20, 2014 at 8:30PM

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Rob Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker Freedom
4503

Voiceovers are just like any tool, can be used to a great affect or misused due to lack of creativity.

I find it extremely frustrating and insulting, when VO are used to set up the world the film takes place. I see it all over the place especially in sci fi films (shorts in particular).

Yet if it's used by the likes of Malick or Fincher, well then it's there to convey a completely different point. Fight Club is a great example. A film about consumerism and apathy narrated by a nameless character creates a much more personal emotions and environment from what the film would've been without it. I believe Fincher threatened studios with not doing the film if the VO had been taken out of the script.

I guess my point is that saying VO is lazy is like saying Alexa is the best camera. It is close minded.

October 20, 2014 at 8:55PM, Edited October 20, 8:55PM

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Daniil Deych
Director, Director of Photography, Editor
86

I wonder if Malick was the inspiration for this scene:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNg13Ju5HN8

October 20, 2014 at 10:47PM, Edited October 20, 10:46PM

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nope. not enough steadicam

October 20, 2014 at 11:38PM, Edited October 20, 11:38PM

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Precisely why he is the best choice for The Catcher in the Rye.

October 21, 2014 at 1:32AM, Edited October 21, 1:32AM

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Ian
Director/Writer
76

Great Video.

October 21, 2014 at 9:09PM

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I'm sorry but Jean-Luc Godard did it first, and he probably wasn't even the actual first.

October 22, 2014 at 11:33AM

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Malick is aware of the fluidity of time and the invisible world. He persuades a spiritual vision not unlike Bach does musically. His new one Knight of Cups seems obvious to me, he is talking about sin and redemption just in the trailer. Modern filmmakers need to read more, take liteture classes, learn storytelling. Example: If you don't know the name of the symphony music in "To the Wonder" you should not be commenting on Terrance Malick's film work, it's beyond you now, hopefully not always, but that's up to the individual. Why treat his work any different than Da Vinvci's or Klemt or Bowie. The man is making conscious references, it's not his fault you don't understand. Art being subjective is total crap and a refuge for the lame.

December 19, 2014 at 3:53PM

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Rita
81