Unreliable Voiceover in Fool for Love (1985)

I was watching Robert Altman’s Fool for Love (1985) last night. Although I don’t think it is a terribly great movie, I was intrigued by its innovative use of voiceover. Here, I will briefly address two or three major issues relating to this film technique.

We can take as the default for voiceover in the Hollywood movie a film like Double Indemnity (1944), in which a character, at a point just around the climax, narrates the beginnings of the film plot. At a certain point, the voiceover fades away, and the action proper commences. With reliable voiceover, there is a match-up between what the character is saying and what the cinematic image represents.

This is not the case with the unreliable voiceover in Fool for Love. Here, the character narrates a happier image of a past life event than the one the viewer sees on the screen. For example, at one point, Eddie, the male lead (Sam Shepard), relates how he and his father once walked down the street, exchanging swigs from a bottle of whiskey, with the son being offered the very first swig by his father (Harry Dean Stanton). What the viewer actually sees is a father and son who are separated, rather than united, by the bottle of whiskey. The father is the only one who drinks; he appears almost oblivious of what his son may be experiencing as they walk together after leaving the liquor store.

In trying to imagine further possibilities for the unreliable voiceover, I very soon discover that its possibilities are limited by this proposition: in cinema, the image is much more significant than the voiceover.

The simplest form of this strength arises from the possibility that the viewer may not in fact notice the discrepancy between image and voice at all. Confronted with the apparent solidity of character interaction, the viewer may be led to misinterpret the unreliability of the cinematic image.

A second possibility is to imagine the character is misremembering rather than consciously lying about the past. Again, the image has more power. The character says one thing, but the viewer recognizes another. No genuine blame is here assigned to the character. As a memory fades into the distance of time, our ability to recall it accurately in the present becomes impaired. In the end, image and memory may be at odds with each other. This is not the fault of the character, since it is a common human process.

A third possibility is the conscious lie. But how much of what is remembered is a conscious lie? And what is the purpose of the lie?

These inherent difficulties are multiplied, if we imagine the project of multiple voiceovers on the part of multiple characters, perhaps imagining, from some distance in the future, a common adventure or misadventure. Should each character be trusted equally? If discrepancies arise, should the viewer attribute these to forgetfulness or conscious manipulation? Could there be a mixture of motivations?

From being a film technique that I initially assumed had massive possibilities, I begin to suspect that the unreliable voiceover may in fact be handicapped from the very beginning. Unlike the unreliable narrator in literary fiction, the filmic character must battle constantly against the solidity of the image. This may be a battle he or she is bound to lose.

Levi-Strauss vs. Propp

The translation and publication of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale took place in the late 1950s, about thirty years after its original publication in Russian. As a consequence, the debate, principally among the French structuralists, on the merits of what Propp had achieved did not take place until the early 1960s. In his essay, “Structure and Form: Reflection on a Work by Vladimir Propp”, which originally appeared as Chapter XIII of Anthropologie structurale (1958), Claude Lévi-Strauss attempted to demonstrate that Propp’s major insights led more or less directly to the work that he himself was undertaking. As Lévi-Strauss stated: “The most striking aspect of Propp’s work is the power with which it anticipates further developments” (Lévi-Strauss in Propp 1984175); all that was required for its further development was the rejection of the inheritance of Russian Formalism in favor of a more rigorous and flexible structural analysis:
The structure of the folktale as it is illustrated by Propp presents a chronological succession of qualitatively distinct functions, each constituting an independent genre. One can wonder whether—as with dramatic personae and their attributes—Propp did not stop too soon, seeking the form too close to the level of empirical observation. […] Nothing prevents pushing this reduction even further and analyzing each separate partie into a small number of recurrent functions, so that several of Propp’s functions would constitute groups of transformations of one and the same function. […] Thus, instead of Propp’s chronological scheme, in which the order of succession of events is a feature of the structure
A,B,C, D, E…….M,N, H….T, U,V, W, X
another scheme should be adopted, which would present a structural model defined as the group of transformations of a small number of elements. (Lévi-Strauss in Propp 1984: 183)
As Lévi-Strauss went on to suggest, “the scheme would appear as a matrix with two, three, or four dimensions”, and “its system of operations would be closer to Boolean algebra” (183).
In his reply, which was first published in the Italian edition of Morphology of the Folktale in 1966, Propp rejected most of Lévi-Strauss’s claims and explicitly repudiated the French anthropologist’s attempt to reduce further what Propp calls “the compositional scheme underlying all wondertales” (74) by purely logical means:
In studying the wondertale we note that some functions (actions of the characters) are binary. For example, a difficult task implies its solution, pursuit ends with rescue, the battle leads to victory, the initial misfortune or disaster is liquidated at the conclusion, and so forth. According to Lévi-Strauss, binary functions are complementary and should be reduced to one. That may be true on a logical plane. In a certain way, battle and victory do form one whole. But for the study of composition such mechanical associations are unsuitable and misleading. (Propp 75)
Propp then lists a number of pertinent reasons why certain pairs of functions cannot be reduced in the way Lévi-Strauss intends: these include the fact that these pairs are sometimes performed by different characters; the fact that the outcome of a function can be either positive or negative; and the fact that certain pairs of functions are separated by a whole series of intermediary functions. In sum, Propp states: “Therefore in the study of composition, that is, of the sequence of functions, reduction of the binary elements to a single one will not reveal the laws that govern the development of the plot. A logical arrangement of functions is detrimental to our search” (Propp 75).
In “The Structural Study of Myth”, Lévi-Strauss compares the task of the comparative structural anthropologist to an archaeologist studying not the literature of the past but rather the harmonic dimension of musical notation. For Lévi-Strauss, harmony is the outcome of the entire orchestra—the violin, the cello, the piano and the flute, for example—playing their respective version of the same note. It is only by the simultaneous comparison of the total sound made by the orchestra at a particular point in the musical score that one may understand harmony. As he suggests, “To put it in even more linguistic terms, it is as though a phoneme were always made up of all its variants” (Lévi-Strauss 432). In this analogy, the various musical instruments correspond to the global variants of a particular myth:
what if patterns showing affinity, instead of being considered in succession, were to be treated as one complex pattern and read globally? By getting at what we call harmony, [the archaeologists of the future] would then find out that an orchestra score, in order to become meaningful, has to be read diachronically, along one axis—that is, page after page, and from left to right—and also synchronically along the other axis, all the notes which are written vertically making up one gross constituent unit, i.e. one bundle of relations. (Lévi-Strauss 432)
Stated without the use of the musical analogy, Lévi-Strauss continues to suggest that meaning is not located within the individual myth but is something that is only isolated by means of a comparison of many versions of a particular myth:
…the true constituent unit of a myth are not the isolated relations but bundles of such relations and it is only as bundles that these relations can be put to use and combined so as to produce a meaning. Relations pertaining to the same bundle may appear diachronically at remote intervals, but when we have succeeded in grouping them together, we have reorganized our myth according to a time referent of a new nature corresponding to the prerequisite of thee initial hypothesis, namely, a two-dimensional time referent which is simultaneously diachronic and synchronic and which accordingly integrates the characteristics of the langue on one hand, and those of the parole on the other. (Lévi-Strauss 431-32)
In the English-speaking academic world, Fredric Jameson attempted to place Propp’s work intellectually by underscoring its inferiority to the more rigorous schema of French structuralism. In The Political Unconscious (1981), Jameson offered a truncated account of Proppian morphology that focuses principally on the Donor function, concluding by suggesting its inferiority to the quartet of studies by Claude Lévi-Strauss known as Mythologies (1965-89). The terms of Jameson’s criticism are worth rehearsing. For Jameson, Propp’s schema is problematic because “the concept of the narrative function is shackled to some ultimately irreducible nucleus of anthropomorphic representation”, with the concept of the function fatally transformed “into so many acts or deeds of a human figure” (110). In a final tendentious comparison between Propp and Lévi-Strauss, Jameson writes:
If we juxtapose Propp’s narratological DNA with Lévi-Strauss’s own reading of the Oedipus legend—in which functions are reshuffled like a deck of cards and laid out in suits which henceforth entertain purely logical or semic relations with one another—it becomes clear that what is ultimately irreducible in Propp’s analysis is simply narrative diachrony itself, the movement of storytelling in time. (Jameson 108)
Unusually perhaps, Jameson takes the view that the absence of diachrony and human representation from the interpretation of narrative is a mark of scientific advance. But a purely logical or semic analysis, one shorn of diachrony, would give rise to a class of relations that Propp at any rate considered irrelevant: that set of similar actions that take place at very different moments in the unfolding folktale. This distinction goes to the heart of the intellectual projects of the two theorists. For Lévi-Strauss, “relations pertaining to the same bundle may appear diachronically at remote intervals, but when we have succeeded in grouping them together, we have reorganized our myth according to a time referent of a new nature corresponding to the prerequisite of the initial hypothesis” (Lévi-Strauss 431). But for Propp, the attempt to group together “relations pertaining to the same bundle” will not work—because these relations do not in fact belong together. As Propp suggests:
…an action cannot be defined apart from its place in the course of narration. The meaning which a given function has in the course of action must be considered. For example, if Ivan marries a tsar’s daughter, this is something entirely different than the marriage of a father to a widow with two daughters. A second example: if, in one instance, a hero receives money from his father in the form of 100 rubles and subsequently buys a wise cat with this money for an accomplished act of bravery (at which point the tale ends), we have before us tow morphologically different elements—in spite of the identical action (the transference of money) in both cases. Thus identical acts can have different meanings, and vice versa. Function is understood as an act of a character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action. (Propp 1968 21)
In this sense, if the structuralist ignores the vital issue of functional position, he or she will be free to group together sets of individual actions from different portions of the narrative, and even from a wide variety of different narratives. But any meaning that the structuralist then imposes on these sets will be entirely the work of the structuralist. In themselves, they will have no intrinsic correlated meaning themselves. As Propp suggests in his reply to Lévi-Strauss:
The difference between my way of reasoning and that of my critic is that I draw my abstractions from the date, whereas Lévi-Strauss draws abstraction from my abstractions. He assets that there is no way back from my abstract schemes to the material, but if he had taken any collection of wondertales and compared them with my scheme, he would have found that the scheme does indeed correspond to the material and that the structure of the wondertale is a fact. (Propp 76)
In truth, Propp’s “compositional scheme underlying all wondertales” is “a random string”, in the sense that Murray Gell-Mann gives to that concept within information theory. As Gell-Mann explains:
Such a string has a maximum AUC for its length. There is no rule, no algorithm, no theorem that will simplify the descriptions of that bit string and allow it to be described by a shorter message. It is called a “random” string precisely because it contains no regularity that will permit it to be compressed. (Gell-Mann 38)
In this case, the effort to simplify that compositional structure or string along the lines proposed by Claude Lévi-Strauss is a project that was doomed to fail.

The Enigma of Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss became an internationally celebrated intellectual during the heyday of cultural explanations for human behaviour. His first book, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, is chiefly remembered for its ill-fated assertion that the incest taboo marks the human passage from nature to culture. Assessing Lévi-Strauss’s lasting achievement is no easy task. For a start, the French anthropologist was endlessly self-deprecating. He frequently claimed only the most modest of achievements for himself. Sometimes this modesty was entirely justified. As Patrick Wilcken points out in Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), throughout his career, the French anthropologist undertook little or no substantive fieldwork. He preferred the library to the jungle, the attentive students in the lecture hall to the unpredictable Amazon tribe in its native habitat. Although he may be said to have invented structuralism, Lévi-Strauss appeared uninterested in followers or acolytes. His major opus, Mythologies, now seems like a giant uninhabited volcanic island, thrown up like a freak of nature, away from which the intellectual community has been sailing ever since.

My interest in him stems largely from two factors: the first is my interest in his work as a study in pseudo-scientific verbiage. Lévi-Strauss drew frequently on a discourse that evoked the scientific method, even though he nowhere exploits genuine scientific thought. Though now in full retreat, this discourse still exerts some measure of acceptance in the humanities. The second stems from his exchange with Vladimir Propp, an exchange that is still too often presented as if it were a debate that the Frenchman won. In truth, the debate shows up all too clearly the limitations of a style of thought that assumes a high level of charlatan-esque posturing, both in oneself and in one’s intellectual combatants. That Propp refused to play that game explains the sudden termination of the interest of Levi-Strauss in the issues he had initially raised. One purpose of this blog will be to give those issues the proper examination they require.


This is my first post, so I will keep it simple. This blog will be used as a place of reflection on the subject of the plot. I will discuss the plots of fairy tales and film screenplays, using a refined Proppian morphology. It will come as little surprise that this is what my first book is all about.