My default position on narration in documentary film is almost always negative, especially when it is used as an amateurish substitute for skilled cinematic storytelling. But I don’t have a hard and fast rule, and sometimes a few strategically placed, eloquent words fit seamlessly into a narrative. For the most part, though, I am a fan of wordless ”narration” that tells a story with meticulous and rhythmic editing.
Of course, all bets are off in first-person documentaries. When these films are done well, (far too seldom) the narration is precisely the point. I think of the films of Alan Berliner, Doug Blank, Ross McElwee, and Elizabeth Barret.
In Elizabeth Barret’s Stranger with a Camera, narration rises to the level of sublimely beautiful poetry. Barret — one of my favorite filmmakers — uses her own voice and creates a truly haunting meditation on life, loss, memory, and the ethics of the visual image. I confess that I deeply admired her film for almost two years before I noticed that much of the narration had been written by Fenton Johnson, an accomplished Kentucky novelist. I hope you can see this great film and hear Elizabeth speaking Johnson’s remarkable prose and what I am sure were many of her own words.
Tonight I had a surprise. I was watching an episode of PBS’s American Experience about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t immediately recognize the voice of the narrator, but it was so understated and mournful that I knew I was not listening to your average voiceover artist. It was almost a new genre, something you might call historical oral theatre.
Then I realized that it was Chris Cooper, one of the finest actors working today. You may have seen him in Adaptation or Capote. Like any brilliant actor, he knows instinctively that less is almost always more. But please listen to his narration if you have a chance. This was stunningly beautiful work and showed how a great actor like Chris Cooper can turn prose into poetry.
Finally, if you want to hear another remarkable example of the use of a narrative voice in film, listen to Tommy Lee Jones speaking Cormac McCarthy’s poetic prose in Ethan and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men.”
The list of Chris Cooper’s accomplishments, already long and packed with one masterful performance after another, has to include this little recognized use of his voice. Check out Barak Goodman’s The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.