P:O.V. No.3 - On two or all three of the short films

Sense of Emotion - in Space. Sense of Place - in Time.

Edvin Kau

  1. Conventions and questions
  2. The Beach, narrative structure and dialogue
  3. Cuts and moves in space: Time
  4. Eating Out, narrative string and dialogue
  5. Actions and delays in time: Space
  6. Endings that do not fade away

The Beach and Eating Out both tell straight-forward stories-about events that are planned or at least expected to develop according to well known conventions-but in both cases go drastically wrong. In Eating Out two young people try to rob a small burger bar, but fail to do so because the girl prefers to get something to eat before they take the money and run. In The Beach, two families' perfect, happy day on the beach is turned inside out, when it is disclosed that one of the men is beating his wife. We are faced with two unhappy endings that on the other hand turn out to have at least some flavour of happy endings.

Conventions and questions

What is it that makes these stories more interesting than the simple strings of actions and the dialogues we meet at first glance? How is it made possible to relate something to an audience and at the same time produce an experience of the dynamic shifting between three positions or levels: 1) Conventional or at least well known situations with built in unproblematic outcome, which 2) is broken down, only 3) to be replaced by unexpected, if also problematic, final states? Or in other words, how is it that something or other in these films gives the seemingly straight-forward narratives a twist, which pulls us out of the almost trivial qualities of the situations, and at the same time prepares for a final presentation that simultaneously with the reversal of convention and happy outcome according to plans-still leaves room for suggestions of hope and (some degree) of happiness? I shall try to point out some elements that-as part of a rhetoric of the moving image-give these short films some special qualities, which enable the filmmakers to accomplish this feat.

The Beach, narrative structure and dialogue

The structure of The Beach may be described in this way:

  1. A pan from left to right followed by a tracking shot to the right gives an overview of the setting and the first presentation of the situation. In this way the film gradually closes in on what is going to be it's centre of interest. The pan is very slow, and the shift from this first shot to the tracking is also a remarkably slow dissolve. Compared to these first seconds, the pace in the tracking shot is slightly faster. In this way the film leads it's audience into the realistically stylized situation on the beach (the visuals being combined with a gradual foregrounding of voices and sounds from the people on the beach).

  2. Persons and activities on the beach: a) Anne's husband playing cricket with their son Simon and the other two boys. b) Her friend Margie's husband Jeff by the water with two small girls.

  3. Presentation of the two women lying under their parasol on the beach. Lazily Anne and Margie exchange a few lines of dialogue (small talk about what the others are doing, and how hot it is, while they sit up).

  4. The disclosure of David's violent behaviour. Anne finally confides in Margie.

  5. Margie orders David never to hit Anne again. And punishes him by kicking him in the groin.

  6. Margie tries to divert Simon from the dramatic conflict. Playing in the water with him she seems to succeed. But a few moments later he is again absorbed in what has been going on, looking back at his mother.

  7. Anne's and Simon's eyes meet across the space of the beach.

This structure is so concentrated that it only just manages to resemble a narrative. With a visual space that is cut to the bone and a sparse dialogue that holds only what is essential, you might regard it as one concentrated statement, almost one burst, which at the same time is both presentation of characters, problem, solution, and conclusion. But where does the film differ from any other well-meaning contribution to debates about battered women and attempts to find measures against violent husbands? We will get back to this. First a few words about the dialogue.

Before and after Anne's and Margie's talk, the lines are few, and they closely follow the action. First David makes a few remarks to the boys about their playing cricket. And afterwards, Margie and David exchange angry words, which are strongly and exclusively connected to their physical attitudes and actions and to the shots designed to show just that. The most important part of the dialogue is, of course, Anne telling Margie about David's violent behaviour. After a remark about the temperature and a gentle stroke down Anne's sweating back, Margie sees the big bruise: "How did you do that?" Followed by this dialogue:



























"Oh-I slipped on the back steps."

"Oh.-Mmmhhh (she sighs in the heat).-How come?"

"How come what?"

"That you fell down the steps."

"Oh-ah. I don't know, I-I just did."

"You okay?"


"Anne, what happened?"

"Look ..."


"Ahh-forget it."

"Anne, what's going on?"


"Anne, I'm your friend! I can see it's not nothing. Why are you souptight?"

"If you must know, David kicked me."


"I said, David kicked me!"

"I heard you, but why?"

"David hits me."

"What do you mean he hits you?"

"I mean just what I said-he hits me."

"(What the) Fuck do you mean he hits you?"-How long has this been going on?"

(David comes from the cricket game, and Margie attacks him).

Just like the over all structure of the beach episode, this dialogue is not much more than a demonstration of the problem, as it is discussed in public debates or presented in television news, for instance, whenever someone is trying to influence politicians, social authorities, or public opinion in general.

Fig. 1-4.

Cuts and moves in space: Time

But where is the difference, then? Because there is a difference, I think. How is this brought about at all? The most important part of the story is told neither through the outlined narrative structure, nor through information presented in the dialogue. The emotional complexity of what Anne (and her family) is going through-and its possible impact on the audience-is brought to the screen through the manner in which a certain part of the two women's talk is visualized. And the crucial part is not just their conversation as a whole-but is in fact narrowed down to a delimited part of it. And especially concentrated around-not in!-some of their lines, Anne's in particular. The important shots are of Anne's doubts whether to tell Margie about David or not, and the fact that she decides to confide in her friend. The most interesting part of the story results from certain practices of a cinematic rhetoric.

Fig. 5-8.

From Margie's discovery of the bruise on Anne's back, 12 shots deserve analysis in some detail. Three close-ups of the bruise (Fig. 1), Anne (Fig. 2), and Margie (Fig. 3) bring us to a two shot (Fig. 4) that is held without any cuts through several lines of dialogue, until Margie says that she "can see it's not nothing". From then on and until the end of their talk (Fig. 12), everything is shown in close-ups, while Anne is telling about the problem. But the first 5 shots and the cut between Fig. 4 and 5 are just a prologue to what I consider the most interesting meaning producing practice and the core of this film: What is told without words and "outside" any logic of just a string of events. The cut that brings also Anne in close-up again (Fig. 5-6) and the little pause before she says "If you must know..." in Fig. 6, are just another pair of steps in that direction.

Fig. 9 a-b
The crux of the matter is that the spatial articulation brought about by the cutting practice I have described makes the pauses, especially in Anne's account, speak about her hesitation, insecurity, fear, despair, and doubts. About her psychological state. She speaks the line "I mean just what I said-he hits me" in the course of two shots (fig. 8-9). And her hesitation is literally given space by the cut. The pause starts before the cut, and the tension of her hesitation is built up by the fact that the spatial dynamic of cut plus change of angle is not followed by any aural dynamic-since the pause lasts some time into the next shot. Furthermore, it almost looks as if these moments are expanded by Anne's movements. She turns her head to and from Margie (Fig. 9a-9b), and together with the combination of pauses and cuts these movements constitute a spatial articulation of the situation, and in fact give physical quality to time and psyche.

Fig. 10 a-c
As soon as you become aware of this intricate solidarity between spatial articulation and the way we experience time as meaning, other examples are at hand. In this context, movement (and silence; Fig. 10 b-c) and cutting as a way of expressing Anne's state of mind, are foregrounded in a cut on movement, which almost has the quality of a jump cut (Fig. 9b -10a). Subsequently, not a word is spoken during the last two shots in this series (Fig. 11-12). What this passage gradually narrows in on, and what I have emphasized, it becomes possible to embody in shots without a single word: not just the violence and the necessity of getting the problem out in the open, but Anne's insecurity and hesitation to admit the family's problems to the surroundings. This is told through pauses and in ways I have exemplified. Silence and time articulated in movements and the editing of space.

Fig. 11-12

During Anne's and Margie's conversation (and specifically the way it is visually articulated in space), movements within the shots, especially Anne's, and the montage of the shots, tell another story besides or beyond the facts of dialogue and narrative. In other words, these examples show that a film story is more than a string of events or a number of lines of dialogue.

Eating Out, narrative string and dialogue

Eating Out is just as minimalistic as The Beach. Its narrative can be summarized as follows:

  1. A normal day in a burger bar. The owner is preparing a burger for a customer, who eventually starts eating it.

  2. The robbery 1. Moments after a moped is heard arriving off screen, a young couple (Roy and Julie) enter. Roy waves his gun and starts shouting that he wants money from the owner.

  3. The robbery 2. The course of events in this standard robbery pattern is delayed and in fact stopped, mainly because Julie is hungry! She wants a burger like the one the first customer is eating. The owner says that he can't do two things at the same time and asks if Roy wants the food or the money first. The result is that Julie has her way.

  4. When a police car's siren is heard, Roy can't control himself anymore. He panics and runs from the place, whereas Julie stays and eats her burger

Again we have a well defined situation or narrative string-which is turned upside down and rebuilt into another/a new and unexpected structure. As in The Beach we meet a narrative which at first glance seems well known and therefore unproblematic to the audience. This time it is a robbery, an almost standard ingredient in countless genre films.

From crime, gangster, and detective films we know the situation and what the characters are supposed to be like. James Cagney-types and wild bunches do what they have to do. Bonnie & Clyde do it their way, and Mickey & Mallory of Natural Born Killers have learned their lesson from Oliver Stone. We all know what is going to happen, when the young couples of the movies enter the bank, the gas station, the drug store... They go in, take the money, and run. Simple as that. Of course, there may be unforeseen or accidental obstacles, and they may be designed by the storytellers to provide some keys to the solution of the crime later on in the movie. But with or without difficulties, an initial robbery like this is generally carried through with some degree of success. Only then, the trouble is allowed to begin.

Fig. 13-15

Actions and delays in time: Space

But, as we have seen, Eating Out has a very special variation to this formula. And as in The Beach, the question is: What is breaking up the prototypical course of events? How does this film manage to tell a different story; apart from the fact that a girl named Julie gets hungry at this unfortunate moment. She (and Roy) is thrown off the track by the very place they are in. (Had it been a bank or a bookshop, this would never have happened!) She utters her wish-they disagree-but she has her way. The consequence-within the dynamic of the narration as story-telling activity (e.g., the way the film chooses to articulate this as a rhetorical construction of specific meaning; and not in some series of causes and effects)-is that time becomes an even more essential factor than in ordinary robbery scenes (Fig. 13-15).

Time is drawn out like a rubberband. Things that are supposed to happen in this kind of scene are delayed and finally given up, as Roy runs from the bar. He is doing what they are used to in a situation like this, but contrary to that Julie chooses to stay. In fact, she finds a new refuge, and a new kind of security and friendship.

This is due to what? Precisely to the fact that the timing of their decision is so radically out of sync with normal dynamics and developments over time in this kind of situation. Then, of course, everything goes wrong. Time is articulated and embedded in their actions in a way that , finally, changes the room. From the scene of a crime (to flee from), it becomes a place to stay. This gives new importance to the spatial articulation and sensuality of the surroundings.

Eating Out handles time as a material in a way that emphasizes spatial qualities. The more time becomes an issue, the more importance is given to the question of staying in place or leaving. To Roy, the place becomes almost claustrophobic, he has to run. As robbers, they both should. To rob people and to run is a question of time, and this makes places and delays not only important, but potentially dangerous! Julie stays, and in staying with her the film stresses the "space part" of the time-and-space-dynamics of the moving images. This may also be one of the explanations for the emphasis that is given to the sensuality of the pictures. The place is very important, and regardless of how dirty it may look, this ultimately is part of its homeliness (Fig. 16).

Fig. 16

In this way the formal characteristics of time and space, and the way they are articulated in shaping the story, become elements in building thematic structures: Julie says: "It's nice here! (...) We don't ever meet anybody! We never stay anywhere more than a few minutes-and don't get to know anybody!" To stay in a certain place, to choose and to belong is important. And: What will happen to Julie and her customer friend-and the burger bar owner? For now, maybe for the first time in her life, Julie feels secure and close to another human being. It's cold, and the other customer at the bar says: "You may lean on my parka coat, if you want to" (Fig. 17).

Fig. 17

The fictional, stylized world of Eating Out is articulated in time in a manner that leaves us with an ending dominated by the spatial articulation of the room, its sensual qualities and the people feeling at home there. The time-element is so to speak sucked out of the conventional model of cinema robberies.

Endings that do not fade away

In both films well known patterns are turned upside down. The robbery fails, and the nice day on the beach takes an unhappy turn. But, as I have described, this is turned around once more: 1. Julie finds a new friend and a refuge in the "homely" burger bar. 2. As the problem of David's violence is disclosed, Anne and her son Simon reach a positive understanding and new strength, mirrored in Simon's expression and just a shadow of a smile.

Above I asked how these films manage to produce meaning that makes it possible to find new kinds of more complex (or even ironic) happy endings; meanings that go beyond narrative structure and dialogue. The answer lies in a cinematic rhetoric which is a result of aesthetic practices In this case an articulation of space that gives weight to the experience of time and emotion (The Beach) and an articulation of time that results in a strong sense of space and place (Eating Out). So, these specific practices-as ways of handling a seemingly aesthetic "surface"-trigger meanings. This makes it possible to present levels of meaning that tell stories which go beyond mere series of actions and words.

It is an interesting element in both films' narrative patterns that they do not end in a fade out after presenting some consequences from a prototypical string of events (even if it's altered, as I have described it)-but make use of their final stages to present quite new or redefined states of affairs. The endings are not just open in the usual sense of the word. They are new centres of the stories. They may even promise new developments, and at any rate they encourage new steps in the interplay with the audience; not just in reflecting back into the stories of the films so to speak, but in considering possible new situations or developments from the points where the films leave the characters. In this way the moving images demand-and educate-active audiences as co-operators in the construction of this kind of narrative.