Books Essays Sound & Language

Between Diegesis and Mimesis: Voice-Over Narration in Fiction Film


The Woman from Shanghai (Welles, 1947): Voice-over
on the intersection of language, picture, and reflection

This temporary essay will search to reply the distinctions between mimetic and diegetic parts in a filmic textual content, isolate the voice-over as a singular occasion situated between the strict division between mimesis and diegesis, show the linkages between the image-event and the language-event, and look at particular texts that exhibit these distinctions.

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Cinema is, basically, mimetic. The cinema was established as a photographic medium lengthy earlier than sound, and the spoken phrase, was linked to it. Images as the idea of cinema’s signification follow asserts mimesis because the cinema’s main mode of illustration. André Bazin, in What Is Cinema?, and Stanley Cavell, in The World Seen, have adequately demonstrated this reality. The addition of the spoken phrase to narrative movie in the 1920s and 1930s served to finish the mimesis when the supply of the speech is clearly emanating from a personality on display or on the fast periphery of the motion (the character may be talking from off display, but when we’re conscious of his or her presence, if the character is a participant in the sequence, we don’t query the supply of the spoken textual content, and thus mimesis is unbroken).

Nevertheless, the voice-over, as it’s used in narrative movie, presents a singular set of circumstances relating to signification, mimesis, and diegesis as these distinctions apply to a filmic textual content. The spoken textual content in a movie, when linked causally (i.e., instantly) to the picture, could also be thought-about part of the mimesis of the movie. Nevertheless, the voice-over, when it happens aside from the picture on display, signifies as a language-event, versus the totally different case of signification of the image-event, in that the linkage between language and picture is associative (or, oblique). This temporary essay will search to reply the distinctions between mimetic and diegetic parts in a filmic textual content, isolate the voice-over as a singular occasion situated between the strict division between mimesis and diegesis, reveal the linkages between the image-event and the language-event, and look at particular texts that reveal these distinctions.

Within the current guide The Realities of Film: Theories of Filmic Actuality, Richard Rushton claims that, quite than confer with a actuality outdoors of itself, a movie constitutes its personal actuality, and thus its personal mode of being, which isn’t secondary (referential), however main (as is our expertise of “reality” outdoors the textual content of the movie). That’s, movies are part of actuality, however are usually not abstracted from actuality, and thus represent a “filmic reality” (2). The character of this filmic actuality is that it might not essentially be self-contained, however it’s essentially self-referential. The thesis of Rusthon’s ebook is, as he writes, “to dispel the myth that there is anything behind films. Its central point is quite simply that films are enough – they do not need to be something else; there does not need to be anything behind a film that would be better or more significant than a film as it is. Filmic reality – the reality of film – is film as it is” (eight). Rushton’s argument (following Gilles Deleuze and Cavell, after a trend), as intriguing as it’s, goes too far. Film is all the time in search of correspondence with the world to which it adheres; that is the character of realism in movie. In Rushton’s estimation, realism is an working modality of movie; I might argue that realism is what constitutes movie. The query isn’t certainly one of realism vs. formalism (or different oppositional aesthetic positions), however levels of seemliness of the truth of our expertise. Little question movies represent their very own actuality – Bazin and Cavell agree on this level – however that actuality adheres to a recognized actuality widespread to the capabilities of our personal expertise of the world outdoors the movie (we couldn’t acknowledge the filmic materials if we had no foundation for comparability; that’s, our catalog of experiences of actuality. On this sense I might place Christian Metz’s “imaginary signifier” not in the equipment of the cinema however in the truth of our experiences). Rushton’s e-book is useful as a result of it furthers the investigation into the character of this adherence; the strategy of voice-over, as utilized in narrative movies, helps us think about the character of the linkage between movie and the world, in addition to a willpower of mimetic and diegetic parts of the filmic textual content.

To start, I might separate the 2 elementary elements of narrative movie: the language-event and the image-event, which mixed represent the filmic textual content. The important foundation of cinema is the image-event, which (as beforehand talked about) is grounded in images; or, if we want, a photographic presentation of the world. Cavell is right in his assertions relating to the indexicality of the picture in a filmic textual content, that “[photographs] have answers in reality” (24); likewise, Bazin, that “photography enjoys a certain advantage [over painting] in [the] . . . transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction” (14). In my expression image-event, the time period occasion is meant to suggest the very fact of our expertise of the picture, in addition to the best way in which the picture signifies its which means to us. The expression language-event is supposed to isolate these language features of the movie that aren’t a direct a part of the mise en scéne, or are intimately (or apparently) linked to it. In these instances, the language-event, disconnected as it’s from a corresponding picture, signifies (i.e., makes which means) as language, not as picture; that’s, it can’t be stated to be a part of the image-event. This can be a elementary situation of the voice-over in narrative fiction movie.

The mode of filmic illustration is mimetic in the classical sense of displaying, versus diegesis, which is illustration by telling, or narrating. In every situation, one thing is represented (or when you like, introduced once more, an expression that preserves the inherent actuality of the filmic textual content whereas additionally addressing the required reality of that textual content’s connection to a actuality outdoors itself); the character of mimesis is the truth that one thing is referred to (regardless of how “real” a filmic textual content is, it can’t refer solely to itself for which means). The image-event is clearly mimetic in that it corresponds (the time period is critical) with an unbiased actuality that exists outdoors of ourselves and thus necessitates our recognition of it as being outdoors of ourselves; that’s, actuality that may be known as considerable to our equipment for notion but in addition stands aside as an occasion outdoors these equipment after the preliminary (or genuine) notion has occurred. This isn’t a superficial level in consideration of the referentiality of the image-event; the image-event in cinema impacts our perceptual equipment in such a method that mimesis happens by means of a resemblance to (or re-assemblage of) the world with out necessitating one other type of media (these features of the image-event that don’t readily correspond to our expertise, comparable to leap cuts, cross- fades, shifts in digital camera perspective, and so forth., are rightly termed non-diegetic, if we settle for non-diegetic to be a subset of diegesis, and not the other of diegesis). The connection between a picture and its referent is one among non-ambiguous adherence, which C. S. Peirce phrases a direct signal. That’s, the picture doesn’t signify via its approximation to its referent; for instance, a picture of a whale is simply a picture of a whale, and we can’t mistake it for anything. However the picture of the whale is a picture of an precise whale, the truth of the whale is transferred to the picture of the whale, and there isn’t a ambiguity between the 2. Thus, once we see a picture on display, we all know it to be what it’s in itself.

Little question the connection between a phrase and its referent is fraught with ambiguity; the adherence between the signifier and the signified of the linguistic signal generates a semantic subject that in flip impacts potential which means associations. The linguistic signal (following Peirce) requires three elements: signifier, signified, and interpretant, whereas the picture requires solely the picture and its indexical referent. The linkage between the picture and referent is direct; the identical linkage(s) in the linguistic signal are interpretive. (A picture in a movie could also be “interpreted” by advantage of its symbolism, metaphor, allegory, and so on., however these are tropes, and don’t have an effect on the character of the linkage between picture and referent.)

When the cinema was a silent medium, the perform of the image-event was clear. If language existed, it did so in the type of title playing cards, which clearly have been textual. Even with out spoken language, the character of cinema was mimetic; mimesis in this case determines the referential nature of the image-event. The addition of spoken language to the image-event solely completes the sense of mimesis; the picture nonetheless signifies as an image-event. However the relationship between language and picture requires additional consideration.

When language accompanies picture in a method that’s in line with our genuine expertise of the world, we should think about the representational mode mimetic, and the language turns into part of the image-event. For instance, when a personality on display is talking and we hear his or her language, the purpose of emanation is obvious; even in the shot/reverse shot sample of edited dialogue, whereas the speaker will not be on display (the digital camera might minimize to the opposite character on the display to gauge his or her response to what’s being stated), we’re nonetheless in little question as to who’s talking and find out how to attribute that spoken textual content. Nevertheless, when the speaker of a textual content shouldn’t be recognized, or just isn’t current to the image-event, or is abstracted from the image-event, we encounter a unique expertise of language in movie: the language-event.

The language-event is distinct from the image-event in that it isn’t clearly attributed to a personality in the mise en scéne. That’s, the language is separate from the image-event, and the linkage between the picture and voice-over is relegated to the realm of interpretation. The voice-over is certainly over; it’s layered onto the image-event (we don’t consider “voice-beyond” or “voice-other”). Separated from the image-event, the voice-over turns into a language-event, and as such signifies not as picture however as language. The language-event is just not strictly part of the mimesis of the movie, because it signifies as language, however as a result of mimesis is the elemental representational mode of cinema, the language-event is linked in some solution to the mimesis. We might say that the language-event exists between mimesis and diegesis; it signifies as language and its representational modality is diegetic, however it’s, by necessity, related to the elemental mimesis of the movie. The language-event in cinema happens mostly in the type of voice-over.

For the needs of this research, I’ll qualify voice-over as disembodied narration over an image-event. The voice-over just isn’t particularly non-diegetic. As a result of the voice-over is a language-event, it represents as diegetic; as a result of it’s related to the image-event, it’s a part of the mimesis of the filmic textual content. Voice-over in narrative cinema takes totally different elements; I’ll try and qualify three: descriptive/discursive; descriptive/interpretive; and inside monologue.


On this mode, the voice-over serves to introduce, present context, or set up background, mostly originally of a story movie. That is fairly generally seen in B-films (in specific, it appears, science fiction B-films); typically this software of voice-over outcomes merely from an lack of ability (typically budgetary) on the a part of the filmmakers to point out the required photographs. Or, a quick narrative introduction might serve to set the tone and historic (or, if you’ll, literary) context of a movie, similar to in The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles, 1942) or How Inexperienced Was My Valley (Ford, 1941).


The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles’ voice-over introduces the context for the narrative.


How Inexperienced was My Valley. Huw’s grownup voice-over opens the movie.


In Huw’s voice-over the village at this time . . .


. . . turns into, by way of a cross-fade, the village of his boyhood.

Nevertheless, this way of voice-over can be utilized extra apparently. Ingmar Bergman makes use of a voice-over narration at the start of Wild Strawberries (1957) in order for the central character, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), to relate the content material of his dream (which is past his waking, or rational, notion), which establishes the sense of alienation that haunts him and drives the narrative rigidity of the movie.


Wild Strawberries. In Isak Borg’s narration of his dream, he’s additional disembodied by his encounter together with his personal corpse.

On this instance, a reality of the voice-over as a language-event is vital to Bergman’s utilization; as a result of the voice-over comes from outdoors the textual content, it registers as a disembodied voice, and thus emanates from a place of authority (the voice-over as a language-event in this regard shouldn’t be topic to verifiability; that’s, the voice-over as a signifying language-event can’t lie). In Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Charles Chaplin makes use of an introductory narration to determine the motion of the movie, which occurs in flashback; the narration is offered by the character Verdoux (Chaplin) over the picture of his personal grave (Verdoux’s final speech in the movie, earlier than his execution, means that he’ll hang-out these chargeable for his dying; in this manner the narrative comes full circle).


Monsieur Verdoux. Absent physique, current voice.

In Billy Wilder’s Sundown Blvd (1950), the movie is, once more, launched by a lifeless man; in this case, Joe Gillis (William Holden) introduces the narrative context over a shot of his personal corpse floating in Norma Desmond’s swimming pool.


Sundown Blvd. Narrated by the physique in the pool.


The change to 3rd individual highlights the irony of present-tense narrative from a lifeless man.

In these examples the voice-over signifies as a language-event resulting from its narrative/discursive objective; nevertheless, the diegesis is intently linked with the image-event; we see the physique (or, in the case of Monsieur Verdoux, the grave marker that signifies the absent physique: a double absence) from which the narration emanates; thus, the signification is linguistic, however, in contrast to the direct use of dialogue (in which the language is instantly linked to the picture), signification in this sense is someplace between diegesis and mimesis.


Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Mild (1963) opens with Pastor Tomas (Gunnar Björnstrand), in medium close-up, starting the service of the Eucharist. Then Bergman fades to a perspective outdoors the church; we hear the textual content of Tomas’ liturgy, however in distinction we see the chilly, desolate waste of the winter panorama. We hear the language, however we not have direct connection to the emanation; we might say that the voice speaks over the picture, and additionally that the picture seems beneath the voice. Thus, Bergman splits the filmic textual content between the language-event and the image-event, and this cut up, and its demand for an interpretive modality (meant to separate the language of the liturgy from the picture of the heat and sanctity of the church) displays the cut up working inside Tomas himself, between the intent of the liturgy as sacrament and the hollowness of the language as he performs it:


Winter Mild. “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Lengthy shot of the church from throughout a snow-covered area; POV is indirect to the entrance of the church.



“Give us this present day our every day bread and forgive us our trespasses . . .


. . . as we forgive those that trespass towards us.” Lengthy shot of the church (barely nearer) from throughout the snow-covered subject; POV is immediately in entrance of the church, which is framed between two naked timber.



“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.”
Lengthy shot of the church from throughout a frozen pond. The voice-over carries over the fade right into a return shot of Tomas, now in medium close-up (in profile), finishing the prayer.

The language-event and the image-event converge on the shut of the prayer. The voice-over signifies as language, whereas the concurrent pictures, with out an obvious linkage, signify as an image-event. A linkage could also be implied solely in the interpretive realm; that’s, the textual content of the language could also be interpreted to remark immediately (paradoxically, satirically) on the pictures. On this method the language and pictures interpret one another, however don’t signify as a unified filmic textual content.

Inside Monologue

The case of voice-over to point out inside monologue is probably probably the most complicated case of language/picture signification. This utilization of voice-over, in its most simplistic, is a holdover from literature and drama, and in its weakest software features in the identical means. For instance, in the Tay Garnett melodrama Trigger for Alarm! (1951), Ellen Jones (Loretta Younger) searches her residence for a probably incriminating letter; we hear her narration, in voice-over, of her statement that her husband is lifeless.


Trigger for Alarm! Ellen’s voice-over: “That man lying there was George, my husband. He was dead. He died trying to kill me.” The voice-over merely repeats the motion on display.

This can be a poor use of inside monologue for a number of causes. First, the movie has already established the likelihood that the letter might have been taken or misplaced, so Jones’ nervousness is obvious to us; second, the voice-over distracts from the mise en scéne, in order that we should scrutinize the textual content of the narration to find out whether or not there’s one other, much less apparent purpose for her worry (there isn’t); third, the voice-over merely describes the pictures on the display, and is wholly pointless. On this case the inside monologue is a restating of the apparent (at greatest) and an lack of ability on the a part of the director and actor to speak visually the meant signification (at worst).

Nevertheless, inside monologue may be dealt with in a approach that doesn’t sever the mimesis. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Judy (Kim Novak) writes a letter to Scotty (James Stewart) revealing the reality concerning the mysterious “Madeleine.”


Vertigo. Judy’s voice-over begins in media res: “And so you found me.”

As she writes, we hear her learn the textual content of the letter in voice-over, which appears pointless, as a result of Hitchcock might simply present us the textual content on display. On this occasion, although, as we hear Judy’s voice, we understand that although the letter is meant for Scotty, the narrative is a confession to herself about her twin “Judy/Madeleine” id (one other instance of the motif of doubling/reflection in the movie). (Considerably, Judy tears up the letter when she finishes writing it; once more, the confession is for herself, not for Scotty.) In a essential scene in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) displays alone, late at night time in his residence, on the selection of whether or not to have his affair with a flight attendant (Angelica Huston) uncovered, jeopardizing his medical profession and social standing, or having the lady killed. That is an apparent alternative to be used of inside monologue.


Crimes and Misdemeanors

Nevertheless, Allen has Judah talk about the dilemma with an apparition of his brother Ben (Sam Waterston), a rabbi.


The looks of Ben’s “voice” in Judah’s voice-over corresponds with the flash of lightning.

The scene thus signifies as an image-event; Allen stretches strict plausibility (usually our sense of ethical steerage doesn’t take human type and seem in our front room in the midnight) for the sake of the mimesis.

Additionally, the voice-over as inside monologue can increase our understanding of a personality and a personality’s motivations. In Orson Welles’ The Woman from Shanghai (1947), we hear the inside monologue of Michael O’Hara (Welles) as he negotiates his means by way of the tangled plot involving femme fatale Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), her husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), and their seemingly numerous hangers-on.


The Woman from Shanghai. Michael’s voice-over interprets his mind set . . .


. . . in addition to his self-perception.

O’Hara’s narration is important for us to know his motivations, particularly since his actions defy logic; in this manner Welles makes use of the inside monologue to speak the discrepancy between O’Hara’s higher judgment (in voice-over) and his lack of ability to regulate himself (his actions on display); or moderately, what he thinks he ought to do (oblique reflections that signify as a language-event) and what he truly does (which signify as image-event). This duality between inside monologue and exterior motion is mirrored in the movie’s use of mirror imagery and in O’Hara’s completely pitched rhetorical query that closes the movie.

Welles’ use of inside monologue additionally demonstrates an issue inherent in the method: inconsistency of perspective. Except for the occasional experimental narrative (resembling Robert Montgomery’s 1947 movie Woman in the Lake), cinema operates in the third individual; nevertheless, inside monologue is by necessity first-person narrative. If the language-event (the monologue) and the image-event (the pictures on display) are meant to happen concurrently (as in Trigger for Alarm! or The Woman from Shanghai), we’re introduced with a rupture of the mimesis, if not a rupture of spatial narrative logic: a personality displays on or narrates motion she or he is in the method of performing. This rupture is clear in Trigger for Alarm!, in which we see Ellen Jones performing the actions she is narrating (thus making the narration redundant), and additionally emphasizing the truth that we’re seeing a personality signify the identical act in picture and in language (if Ellen’s voice-over didn’t accompany her actions, the narrative would signify as language and we might be spared the rupture). The redundancy in signification is disruptive due to the elemental undeniable fact that picture and language signify in radically alternative ways.

Nevertheless, Welles makes use of inside monologue in The Woman from Shanghai not as a story gadget however as an interpretive gadget; Michael O’Hara’s operating narrative seems like an interpretation of his actions (and thus displays the distinct dilemma he faces inside himself between cause and want). This interpretative slant alerts the voice-over as a language-event, related to the image-event in the interpretive realm; thus, no rupture in the mimesis, although the operating narrative is, in reality, an inside monologue.

As André Bazin has demonstrated, images (movie) essentially refers back to the world which it presents. The strict classical distinction between diegesis and mimesis is difficult by the very fact of the photographic indexicality of movie. Definitely a filmic textual content creates a world, nevertheless it can’t be stated to be totally self-contained; the world of the filmic textual content exists in the ambiguous space between presentation and illustration. This elementary referentiality of the picture skews our understanding of diegesis and mimesis as these phrases apply to not literature however to the distinctive medium of the movement image. The varied manifestations and practices of voice-over permit us a means into these questions and a footing upon which to start a extra thorough important qualification of those distinctions.

Works Cited

Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? Quantity 1. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: College of California Press, 1967.

Cavell, Stanley. The World Seen: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. Enlarged version. Cambridge, MA: Harvard College Press, 1979.

Rushton, Richard. Theories of Filmic Actuality. Manchester, UK: Manchester College Press, 2011.

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