On ‘Barney’s Version’: Barney’s Voice
February 25, 2011 | by Richard J. Lewis
David Bezmozgis | February 23, 2011
There is a bias in Hollywood against voice-over narration. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat in a meeting and heard producers and development people go on and on about how they hate voice-over, calling it a “device.” I feel differently, however. My thinking is that if it can embellish the material, it should be used. The problem is that far too often it is used as a crutch. It’s redundant (we hear what we see) and therefore, downright boring. This has given voice-over narration a bad name. Yet we have seen it used effectively in films from the past, such as Little Big Man and My Life as a Dog, or more recent films, such as Easy A and Juno.
Even if I agree with you about the flow of the movie being better without the use of Barney’s particularly idiosyncratic voice, which is ultimately the main artery into Richler’s voice, I still have this nagging sense that something is missing in the film. To be honest, I am not sure I will ever be totally happy with the film but this opens up a whole other can of worms. Most artists, in general, are never really satisfied with the final product. We are always the Monday-morning quarterback, wishing we had done it like this and not like that. Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I like about Barney. The wedding sequence, for example, always gives me a kick. But in retrospect, I do miss Barney’s voice, because without it I feel that we are missing the notion of his actual “version.” His voice would have given the title more resonance and, in doing so, perhaps given more cogency to the piece as a whole. Also, for the audience, the concept of unreliable narrator would have been far easier to grasp.
To answer your inquiry about the nursing home, I think it’s best to dive into an old draft of mine and ferret out a sequence from the beginning of the film that starts with a newscast reporting the discovery of the remains of Boogie’s body on Mount Groulx ...
... Police issued a formal statement
revealing that the discovery and
identification of the body would
lead to no additional charges at
this time... in other news...
Pull out from screen to reveal this broadcast on a TV mounted
in the corner of ...
INT. KING DAVID NURSING HOME, RECREATION ROOM - DAY
A few octogenarians linger, reading, playing cards. Near the
window, seated in a wheelchair with his back to the us is 70
year-old, BARNEY PANOFSKY, wearing a bathrobe and slippers.
CAMERA CLOSES ON BARNEY
aged, frail, perhaps even conquered. He stares vacantly
forward unable to control the drool that covers his chin.
Finally, his mouth opens slightly and he is able to utter...
... Just as a NURSE swoops in, unlocks his chair, and swivels
him away from the window.
Mr. Panofsky, you know you can’t
smoke in here.
INT. NURSING HOME HALLWAY, TRAVELING WITH BARNEY
His head bobbing, his face vacant, his mind empty. Except for
the quick, subliminal, imprinting of the following images ...
A MAN IN A MASK AND SNORKEL
A BEAUTIFUL BRISKET ON A SILVER TRAY
A GAUNT WOMAN IN HER TWENTIES LYING DEAD ON A BED IN A
JEAN BELIVEAU SCORING A GOAL
THE BEAUTIFUL MIRIAM IN BLUE CHIFFON DRESS
BARNEY’S MOUTH opens,
CAMERA PUSHES IN on Barney’s sad eyes and then STATIC
overtakes the screen as we ...
Now we cut to Barney, two years earlier, dictating his version of the events into a tape recorder for Solange to transcribe later. He is doing this, of course, in response to Terry McIvers’s indictment of himself in his book, Of Time And Fevers. But that was then and this is now. I made my bed and I have to sleep in it. Enough already with the clichés.
Richler, as far as I can see, was in the business of dispelling belief. He loved to undermine any system of thought that was rote or archaic or any person too lofty for his own good. He was a critic of government and politics and his agnosticism was well publicized. Yet, everyone has to have something to believe in. For Richler, it was love. This piece of dialogue struck me from the first time I read it.
I’m smiling because I can’t believe
this really happens. It really does,
just like that. And I don’t care if
it happened on my wedding night, at
a funeral, on my death bed. It’s
Many years ago Mordecai himself had chased Florence, his heart’s desire, in much the same way as Barney chases Miriam. Florence, at the time, was married and she and her husband were vacationing in the south of France with Mordecai and his first wife. Together, they simultaneously left their respective spouses and eloped. And it worked: he got the girl, he got his one true love. Furthermore, I think that she gave him tremendous stability. Let’s not forget that Richler was a writer—an artist prone to insecurity and self-doubt and all the trappings that come with being a creative person. Perhaps the stability afforded by Florence gave him an anchor from which to ground his work and fire his darts. Maybe his faith in romantic love functioned as a shield of sorts: the home life giving him a safe haven from which there would be no need to compromise, pull punches, or tiptoe around contentious things.
Throughout the course of making this movie, my wife Emily became a Florence or a Miriam to me—a haven. Inevitably, there are times in the process when you lose faith in yourself. You are exhausted and over-wrought with anxiety. You second-guess yourself and everyone and their uncle are telling you what to do. One can lose perspective. It was at times like these that I put my wholehearted belief in my marriage. I thanked my lucky stars for its existence and thought regularly that I would do nothing ever to jeopardize it. The very fact that Barney does jeopardize his relationship is a fact Richler doesn’t ignore: “I was looking for the monster and the monster was me.” It’s as if Richler found the most heinous act that a man could do. It isn’t infidelity. It’s turning your back on the truth.