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.