Arts: Voice of truth

It had become one of cinema's most suspect devices, but in The Thin Red Line Terrence Malick restores the voice-over's critical value.
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The Independent Culture
Terrence Malick's mighty new film The Thin Red Line not only rehabilitates a director who hasn't released product in two decades, it also plays its part in restoring the fortunes of one of the most dishonoured elements of film language: the voice-over. Both Malick's previous efforts, Badlands and Days of Heaven, made use of this simple or not-so-simple device. It's legitimate to wonder whether he can even contemplate making a film without it, as if his most refined aesthetic effects required the base metal of spoken narrative.

It is as easy to write a sentence beginning with the word "I" as it is to start one with he or she, but a first-person film sequence is hugely laborious, and a whole first-person film is an experimental dead end. As literature envies cinema its sweep and dynamism, the rendering of externals, so films envy books their effortless access to what lies inside. When Alfred Hitchcock sets out to adapt Rebecca for the screen, he immediately comes up against the book's famous first sentence. His camera's movement is admirably eloquent, but by itself it can't persuade us that it dreamt last night it went to Manderley again; Joan Fontaine's bodiless voice must do that.

In life a voice requires a body, but in art it only implies one, as viewers of Sunset Boulevard have come to understand over the years, when the world- weary voice that has been guiding them through the story turns out to come from the one impossible place, the water-filled lungs of the man whom we saw killed at the beginning of the film, and who has been floating ever since in Norma Desmond's swimming-pool.

Voice-over has become suspect for the same reason that it has always been attractive: its cheapness in the context of a remarkably expensive medium. Why, the performers don't even need to synchronise their words with the movements of lips filmed months before!

No wonder that adding a voice-over to a troubled or incoherent project is so much preferred to the expense of reshooting - hands up Apocalypse Now, hands up Blade Runner. Even in films whose production schedule is blameless, voice-over can become a mannerism, a way of melting down book pages and spooning them over a film at the last moment, so as to replace what has mysteriously leaked away during the long process of adaptation.

Just occasionally, voice-over is an intrinsic part of the architecture of a film. One of the most striking moments in GoodFellas, for instance, comes when the hero's voice-over gives way to his wife's, and Scorsese is suddenly telling a woman's story - not previously a huge priority in his work. The film is unusual among Mafia films in not glossing over the complicity of the women, and if Scorsese had found a way of ending the story in the female point of view then GoodFellas might have been a great film instead of a very good one.

Don Roos's recent The Opposite of Sex uses voice-over in a sophisticated way, by locating the point of view of the least likeable character. Christina Ricci has a whale of a time as the vicious, manipulative Deedee, gleefully overturning the conventions of genre ("I don't have a heart of gold, and I don't grow one later either"). Here the voice-over claims the privileges of the director, commenting acidly on other aspects of the film. She undercuts a would-be-touching sequence of an abandoned lover moping by referring to the unfair influence of the sound-track. "It's just music... it doesn't make him better than me." She even demands and gets a split-screen sequence, so that the audience can look away from the spectacle of her giving birth ("Excuse me, but haven't we seen this scene a million times before?").

Deedee's voice-over, quite apart from its large, disconcerting entertainment value, pays a subtle dividend to the film-maker and his producers. She acts not only as a teasing filter but as a guarantee, a certificate of mainstream status. At least half the characters in The Opposite of Sex are gay men, and the film deals with such topics as gay teachers, vulnerability to blackmail and false accusations, gay men as fathers, Aids and bereavement. But as long as the point of view, as represented by the voice-over, is distanced from these issues - indeed openly sarcastic about them - a mixed audience can be protected from the suspicion that it is being exposed to minority entertainment, a film with an agenda.

The voice-overs in Terrence Malick's earlier films weren't sophisticated uses of the device; their peculiarity was that they were wan, deadpan points of view with no particular pointedness. Voice-over was used almost against itself, to suggest that people's insides aren't so very different from their outsides. Sissy Spacek's character was at least one of Badlands' leads, but the young girl, played by Linda Manz, was more a spectator of the entanglements of Days of Heaven than a participant. The narrative tailed off unsatisfyingly.

With The Thin Red Line, though, the dissipation of a central focus is thoroughgoing and carefully calculated, and the use of voice-over is a major part of it. The genre of the war film habitually operates by making us care more for one group than for another, more for one soldier than for his neighbour. Malick's film resists this: the camera isn't enslaved by the progress of a military engagement, but feels free to caress the landscape of Guadalcanal, swooping obsessively over long grass blowing in the wind. Heroism is distributed unpredictably among the men, and almost everybody in the film has a voice-over.

Malick's film is highly unlike the films to which it is fated to be compared. In Saving Private Ryan there is a moment after the opening carnage when some American soldiers simply execute surrendering Germans. It's courageous to include such uncomfortable material, though an audience that has endured the previous half-hour is unlikely to get too excited over violation of the rules of engagement.

The parallel sequence in The Thin Red Line is utterly opposite. After C Company have finally taken the enemy position, we see the Japanese not as unitary but as horribly individuated. Some are sick, some are demented, some resort to denial, meditating implacably and denying the conquerors any foothold in their reality. One American soldier squats beside a pile of the dying, waiting with his pliers to take their gold teeth. In this long, extraordinarily contemplative sequence, the viewer tastes defeat as fully as victory. And it is here that Malick deploys the most daringly eloquent of all his voice-overs, its source a dead Japanese face looking sombrely out from a wall of dirt, and asking with full posthumous authority: "Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved truth and goodness?"