Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Voice of ...?

Shall We Kiss (2007) is to be applauded for rejecting a narrative bias that has become so deeply embedded in film as to go almost unnoticed. The implied answer to the title question is, of course, yes. Film and narrative prefer the road taken. And there is also an implicit assumption that new romances are preferable to old and perhaps troublesome marriages. Unless it is a film noir and a femme fatale, adultery is a good thing. Either you find a new, more suitable partner, or you return to your old partner renewed and refreshed. Perhaps filmmakers are trying to craft an argument to justify their own behavior to their spouses? Or is it that narrative wants to push characters to a place they haven't been before and where their behavior will be less predictable? (I will leave aside arguments that moral standards are breaking down because (a) this is not the blog for that sort of thing and (b) you'll find the same complaint in Plato and in Proverbs. Morals are Always Collapsing.)

Shall We Kiss bucks that inclination (pretty surprising for a French film), heading another direction by adding a layer of perspective, introduced by a storyteller and a listener. Unlike most storyteller frames, this one has something at stake -- the title question as applied to speaker and listener, and reflected in the tale being told.

This then, is a film that turns on its narrative as reflected in narration, a tool much underutilized in film today. There is a strong bias against narration in the American film industry. It is considered a crutch, a sign of weakness, of redundancy, of preference for word over picture. And used in a redundant or literary way, that position is quite right. But what such critics of narration ignore is the possibility of juxtaposing word AGAINST picture.

The narrator's voice actually precedes the introduction of synchronized sound. If one looks at the title cards of Biograph films around 1910-1911, one can read something like "Spurred by the treachery of the savage, the brave hunter exerts his utmost to preserve the sanctity of this flower of womanhood." That is, the cards often told the audience what was going to happen in the scene to follow, and is if concerned that the audience would not understand the implications thereof, would provide an overlay of both narrative and social interpretation. (Films of the era seem very anxious to assure the audience that social order, though perhaps temporarily disturbed, will be returned to its Right and Proper status. Or, as Louis Armstong replied when asked how things were, "Same as ever. White man still ahead.") From almost the inception, right through most of the Golden Era, American filmmakers did not trust the audience to get it right. If they understood the storyline, they might not understand what it MEANT. (That's why Dorothy has to tell you there's no place like home, or else you might think it's much cooler to stay in a place like Oz.)

Voice-over narration took a long time to arrive, and at first it was used to remind you that you were watching an Important Film Based on Great Literature. These kinds of films often started with a big book opening slowly, perhaps with tilt-down and dolly-in on the first page. "This is not the usual crap, folks, it's based on a real good book, and we can prove it. See, we're saying the first words of the book as you can see right here." Still, a mistrust of the audience.

But even that simple use of the voice-over opened the door to a more important idea -- the concept of distance and separation from the narrative that was about to unfold. Theater always takes place Right Now. Even if we are in ancient Athens, we are there Right Now because, see, there are the live actors right in front of us, talking right now. Film, by and large, apes that illusion. Even if the sequence of images and sounds is frozen, and we know it is, because there are films we watch over and over, the illusion is that this is all taking place in some sort of now. There is no past tense as the scenes unfold, which is probably why most synopses are written in a breathless present tense, like Damon Runyon without the baroque locutions.

Narration denies that. It says, "This is something that happened," not "this is something that is happening." At first that mode was only employed to say that this is set in the fabled past, or that this is a very important story you should know. Before long, Hollywood went Aesop and started turning stories into lessons, especially in What Not To Do. (This is always a good way to show depravity and immorality, by showing it in detail--fun, fun, fun--and then show people being punished for it. In fact, it's the basis of Cecil B. DeMille's entire career.) There was also the practical of covering time lapses and informing the audience of important changes and developments in a more efficient way than a title card (which suffers from differing reading speeds among the audience, leaving half frustrated at not being able to finish the card in time, and half bored waiting for the others to catch up.) I love the way Truffaut's unemphatic narration in Jules and Jim elides vast gaps in time, space and movements of the heart in a breathtakingly casual way, perfectly consistent with the tone and theme of the film. It's like a narrative torque wrench.

These uses of narration voice-over converged in the hard-boiled crime film (a genre that intersects with film noir), in which the detective shares his process and his outlook on the story as it unfolds. Of course, it is of the essence of the mystery story that facts and circumstances unfold in a non-chronological sequence. Thus there is the underlying narrative and the plot of the mystery laid on top -- that is, the story of how the crime is solved (and often, as in Chinatown, what the crime actually is.) The distancing effect of narration also provides room for humor, usually a wry irony only about a half-clik above sarcasm, but humor nonetheless.

This mode reaches its apogee with A Christmas Story, in which the narrator, author and screenwriter Jean Shepherd tells of epochal, earth-shattering events which are juxtaposed against scenes of an ordinary American childhood. The humor is not of mockery, but of gentle recognition that these little commonplaces feel enormous as we experience our own lives. The irony is one that we share as fellow humans, not one imposed by a sardonic author.

Emmanuel Mouret, writer-director-star of Shall We Kiss? has been compared to Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen, although neither his tone nor his visual style has much in common with either of those. Mouret sports neither nostalgia nor neuroses.* But there is the double vision of either the moralist or the humorist (natural enemies), which is the engine that makes this very slight film go. Indeed, I would argue that without the narration frame, one has little more than a minor variation of When Harry Met Sally, this one answering the central question: "can men and women be friends AND lovers?" in the negative.

(Side note - has anyone attempted a gay When Harry Met Sally? It would seem that the line between friend and lover would be even slippier when both parties share gender. Mine is an outsider's perspective, but it seems as though there might be some comic changes to be rung there. And no, I don't mean when the gay character is pathetically crushing on the straight character. That is a ridiculous straight fantasy, and in a lifetime spent in proximity with gay people, I've never known it to be happen. Being an oppressed minority makes most people pretty practical, and unlikely to waste their time chasing those who are not only unavailable, but likely to hurt you.)

The concept that the entire inner story of the film, which consumes at least 80% of its running time is told in order to explain a simple "no" offered in reply to the title question creates an unexpected suspense, i.e., will the answer change, as the telling of the story winds deep into the night, into the storyteller's hotel room, and as she assumes a semi-erotic pose while she tells the story. The fact that the listener is utterly satisfied by the story and a kiss which carries the implicit agreement to part forever -- that is, the kiss is meant as a simple pleasure sufficient unto itself, without the promise of future delights -- is a more impressive bit of legerdemain. Those who know French better than I claim that the French title, Un baiser, s'il vous plait ("A kiss, please) bears the implication of a kiss upon parting, which, if true, throws a lovely melancholy frame over the whole thing. And oddly, the melancholy of the outher story is much more satisfying than the fumbling consummation of the inner story.

All thanks to narration!
* I suppose playing the lead male role invites the Allen comparison and the preoccupation with the tiny physical details of a sexual encounter the Rohmer.

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