P:O.V. No.5 - On the Art of the Short Fiction Film

Toward a Poetics of the Short Film

Johannes Riis

The short film is often considered a student film genre. Although there seems to be some, perhaps increasing, demand for short films by television in order to sustain a commercial production, the format is generally seen as an opportunity to practice and improve narrative skills without the costs and pains of a long production period. This close association to the student film poses particular problems to someone who wants to describe and explain the principles of short films. The films exist mostly at festivals, and another implication is that there might not be that many good short films if the practitioners are in a learning process.

However, I shall argue that studying short films makes possible a fruitful relation between theorizing and practice that is beneficial to both. Furthermore that studying short films may lead us to new ways of seeing spectator engagement in general.

Theorizing Practice

More often than not, experts in a given field or at a given activity cannot verbalize their skills. Problems and solutions come to the fore of attention and are recognized without conscious inference of what constitutes the problem or how one reaches the solution. As has been argued, the ability to think without being consciously attentive to inference steps, to think in holistic patterns, is a central part of human intelligence.[1] This is less true for novices and students.

In particular university students are trained to formulate verbal descriptions, e.g. in the form of rules of thumb. Since most universities also teach some practical skills in addition to analytic skills, or have students who practice on their own, the label `student film' might offer an advantage and facilitate a feedback between theory and practice. This sort of practical theorizing should be possible not only at universities but film schools in the broadest sense, where students are invited to reflect on their practice. In Denmark this is the case also at film workshops, vocational high schools, high schools, and folk high schools. Testing hypotheses and assumptions about short films and films in general by seeing to what degree they actually aid the production, is not that difficult an enterprise.

Let us hypothesize, for a moment, that a good short film does not use dialogue. From this hypothesis we may search for counterexamples and qualifications as in conventional theorizing, but we may also discover to what degree this description helps students in their production. If dialogue is not used, and the films still suffer, we should look for another parameter-say the photography or acting-or reject the theory. Of course this is not a scientific experiment in a strict sense since it cannot be repeated by others in the same way. Nor should it be, as creation needs a certain freedom from rigorous rules. But feedback from practice may improve the traditional tools in humanistic studies and make us better at qualifying counter-examples and refining concepts.

Allow me a personal note from teaching production classes. Initially I told students that a story should be constructed on the premise of causality, i.e. that one event leads to another by being its logical cause, resulting in rather predictable productions. When instead I emphasized that for a short film to be engaging, it had to be ambiguous, that ambiguity was an important property of good short films, this led to productions that aroused the spectator's curiosity but which sometimes tended to be obscure. Subsequently, I encouraged a combination of ambiguity - enough to make us curious as to what was going on - and a subject matter depicting characters with serious problems. The ambiguity insured that the material was not felt to be a cliché, while our concern for the characters in trouble won over the story's lack of causal logic.

These "findings" are indeed crude. Considering my students' and my own inexperience in constructing short films, the findings of professional filmmakers and scriptwriters should be of greater interest. Also my findings are less true of a comedy, or a longer short film of, say, 30 minutes. Nevertheless I think my experience with the teaching of short films can be seen as a suitable case for theorizing. One might object that learning from practice is a banal and common way of gaining knowledge, carried out everywhere and thus not the method to be used in academia. But even so, the process of generalizing and qualifying is far from banal. Theorizing on the basis of practical experience is legitimately carried out in academic institutions since it requires a certain level of abstraction. Assertions as to how certain devices and elements function should have some general import and be related to questions of history, genre, aesthetics. When generalizing and qualifying, one must take care not to overlook counter-examples or explain away exceptions in a manner that, applied the same way, would dispense also with cases that are claimed to support the theory.

If in need of a label, this sort of theorizing practice can be termed poetics. An alternative to interpretation where a film is seen to mean something by finding symbols, allegories, etc., David Bordwell defines poetics as "a kind of middle-level theorizing-an attempt to describe or explain particular craft practices."[2] Especially a "poetician" should ask:

First, how are particular films put together? Call this the problem of films' composition. Second, what effects and functions do particular films have? If criticism can be said to produce knowledge in anything like the sense applicable to the natural and social sciences, these two questions might be the most reasonable points of departure.[3]

Bordwell suggests that if gaining knowledge about the constructional principles of film is to be compared to the way natural and social sciences gain knowledge, these might be the two basic questions. When looking for an underlying logic of craft, Bordwell points out in "Prospects for a Poetics," we should be inclined to use the problem/solution approach. For instance, the problem that my short film students faced was one of avoiding predictability, the solution to which was low communicativeness in the narration.

The problem/solution model, however, is not only of use when analyzing practical work. It can also be applied to narrative and stylistic problems within a certain type of situation. From a purely analytic point of view Noël Carroll has discussed the structure of the horror film, using such terms as discovery plot and complex discovery plot to describe amongst other things how a horror film slowly introduces the existence of supernatural beings. The existence of vampires and zombies has to be confirmed, before fought as such.[4] Carroll's bottom-up sort of theorizing on the compositional issue is an exemplary, albeit seldom acknowledged instance of middle-level theorizing on composition.[5]

The problem/solution approach is nevertheless particularly suited for feedback from practice. What is important, however, is to understand verbalizations on practical knowledge within a certain framework. The reflections on historical and stylistic variations that are part of scholarly film studies are usually not of any concern to the practitioner who tends to become normative with the acquisition of skills. In this respect it is significant that a prime instance of the problem/solution approach, the first edition of The Technique of Film Editing, was written by Karel Reisz in 1953 when he was still a film critic.[6] Here it is emphasized that an editor's problems and solutions differ depending on the kind of film or scene, e.g. action, dialogue, comedy, montage, educational films, etc., even if some principles, such as smoothness, apply universally. Another instance is the French auteur critics; as Barry Salt has pointed out, the originality in the writings of Truffaut and others stem in great part from their seeing films for guidance on how to handle the camera, when to cut, etc., because they themselves were about to direct their first films.[7]

Nevertheless, reaching practical solutions and reaching descriptive solutions are quite different activities. If one compares Noël Carroll's work on the horror film with the reflections by best selling author Stephen King,[8] it becomes apparent that Carroll has a better understanding of the essentials of the genre. This only makes sense if we acknowledge that experts cannot fully explain what they are doing. Short-term memory is limited and experts attend to the problem and solution at hand, not the tacit knowledge in between. This is undoubtedly true for Carroll's descriptive and explanatory activity as well as for King's creative process; both require years of practice.

When Short Films Engage

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If the first thing we can learn from the short film is related to practical and "experiential" knowledge, the second concerns the spectator. What engages the spectator, and what are the different ways of engaging him or her. This second question touches upon issues that are traditionally dealt with under the headings of identification or narration, but I shall argue that we advantageously can see them in a new and more general perspective. A spectator is engaged when something claims and holds his or her attention and even more so if the film invokes empathy toward characters.

Here we should recall that film theorists have always studied professionally produced feature films. A lot of craft practices and functional principles have been invisible to film theorists because they have not compared amateur shorts to professional films. In this perspective, the insights gained from studying the transformation from primitive cinema to so-called Classical Hollywood Cinema or Continuity Film are pivotal.[9] In these studies the logic of craft, the solutions to problems, become visible and are often very accurately described. However, the potential pitfalls when handling this "new" material, for instance seeing the inventiveness of early filmmakers as ideologically repressive in odd ways,[10] should caution us against some established interpretative doctrines. If we accept the goal of the films as being to engage, the lack of success in engaging a spectator can hardly be seen as liberating (or "heterogeneous," if you prefer) in itself, neither in early films nor student films.

There is more than one way of engaging the spectator; we do not have to valorize a certain paradigm of film production. The one used by the avant-garde film, is to bring experimentation and novelty to the forefront. The goal of films within this tradition can hardly be described as one of wanting to be boring. Experimentation and novelty are engaging in themselves, but if you don't have a clue as to what they are new and experimenting in relation to, they will often appear boring. Thus we might explain the intuitively sensed difference between avant-garde and narrative films along the lines of engaging spectators. As James Peterson has described, avant-garde films require a certain sensibility and knowledge.[11] We should not, as he further argues, necessarily accept the military metaphor of the avant-garde, literally meaning a group sent in advance to weaken the enemy for those who follow. The practice of at least the American avant-garde is one of refinement and revision, not aesthetic revolution.[12] Filmmakers, when thinking of themselves as rebells in this tradition, often returned to one of the two other basic options within the avant-garde film tradition.[13]

As for their general power to engage a viewer, novelty and experimentation will only engage the viewer for a limited period of time. The strongest way to engage a spectator is by appealing to our general concern for other people, whether in a general form as in interest or curiosity, or in the form of such empathic emotions as compassion, sympathy, and admiration.[14] A particularly strong situation, fast working and intensely engaging, is that of victimization. Consider the short film EAU DE LA VIE about a woman's visit to a decadent restaurant. Here it turns out that the entertainment consists of the slow drowning of a boy in an aquarium. We feel sorry for the boy, although we are told that he can only look forward to a miserable life and supposedly feel lucky to be chosen, much like a Roman gladiator. When the drowning is to be carried out, we see how more and more water is let into the aquarium, how he struggles to use the last oxygen before having to let water into his lungs. We hope that the protagonist of the story will intervene and are relieved when she does.

The emotions of interest and curiosity are a large part of spectatorship in general, and in particular of short films. Consider the 360 degree, slow pan in WIND which arouses our curiosity. Initially we see three women with a rather grave look, and then the camera slowly pans 360 degrees, first to reveal a deserted landscape, then a silhouette of a tree without leaves, before showing the execution by hanging of a group of men, only to return to the three women at the same, slow speed. The women turn around and walk to their houses in the background, quite possibly having witnessed the killing of their husbands and sons, perhaps as part of a civil war or occupation (the costumes suggest the middle of this century).

Our initial curiosity is replaced by an empathic emotion, i.e. compassion, as we discover what has happened. This film gains its emotional effect by our cognitive reframing of the women's expression: the initial graveness was not incidental but actually an indication of deep sorrow and personal catastrophe, their immobility a result of seeing action as futile, and the lack of tears suggests acceptance of the injustices of life. Since the landscape initially claims a large part of our attention, we might even infer that incidents like this occurred frequently and accompanied living on the deserted countryside some years ago. Although the story primarily affects us by the inclusion of victimization, it is also significant that we have to perform the reframing. Reframing as we may know from having had to reframe earlier assumptions in our life, e.g. childhood events, causes disturbance which is attention-demanding for the same reason that a surprise is: a new interpretation of one's relation to the environment is called for.

This film is called experimental in the printed festival program of Festival of Festivals, Aarhus 1997. This is quite possibly because the 360 degree pan suggests a formal system, independent of the narrative; in contrast to SUNDAY (Lawlor, Ireland, 1988) which was termed fiction (here the camera pans over people sitting around a table, i.e. a typical narrative motivation). Nevertheless the pan in WIND works narratively by creating suspense and invoking a mood. The slow pan from a glance to the objects seen (as the pan progresses we expect to find out what they are looking at) builds suspense by delaying the moment when we find out what they are seeing. A mood is invoked in the viewer by showing the desolate landscape, giving resonance to the women's sense of emptiness which is one aspect of loss. Probably also in real life, aspects of loss are felt in a spatial, analogue manner.[15] The only sound heard in WIND, the one that gives the film its title, has an expressive function as well by drawing our attention to that wind that sounds as if it is penetrating something, thus giving the setting a cold quality.

Interest seems to work optimally in combination with empathic emotions. Compare WIND's narrative pan to the slow zoom in Michael Snow's WAVELENGTH (1967) that lasts for forty-five minutes, taking us from a vast loft to the detail of a photograph on the wall.[16] Of course it also creates curiosity as to what the shot will finally reveal, but hardly so much that it will engage the spectator for forty-five minutes, and whatever mood is invoked does not contribute to character emotions since no characters are present. This is not to say that for instance a connoisseur of avant-garde film, or even a film historian, will be unable to regard the film as a whole as interesting or important, but my guess is that he or she will not be attentive all the way through.

The engaging of the spectator is not an automatic process. The filmmaker may opt for the strategy of formal experimentation, and thus appeal to our disposition for novelty. This is risky, since our attention will be drawn towards individuals or agents. Characters, however, may not in themselves hold interest longer than the spectator's initial curiosity will carry, before getting boring or irritatingly mysterious as when nothing is implied beneath the surface. One may, as Jim Jarmusch has done in COFFEE AND CIGARETTES, combine these two strategies: alternate between showing strangely speaking characters and suddenly cut to a vertical view down on the checkered coffee table. We may speak of "curiosity-strategies" here; EATING OUT is another example.

A generally more powerful strategy is that of invoking empathy. Empathy in the form of compassion created by situations of victimization, as discussed above, is a strategy that is possible in short films. The filmmaker may choose to present the incident as it is about to happen, as in EAU DE LA VIE, or he or she may choose the strategy of reframing, as in WIND, or - to name another - THE BEACH. Our emotions need not be identical to those of the characters we feel compassion for; something often implied in the term identification. When the boy in EAU DE LA VIE feels lucky to be chosen to die in front of the restaurant guests, we feel disgusted; when he is relatively calm in the aquarium, we feel the tension rising. In this sense we react as if we were witnesses to, not participants in, the situation. We have, as Noël Carroll has pointed out, both an internal and an external understanding of the situation.[17]

The risky aspect of appealing to compassion is that if it fails, the result is an irritated spectator. This is perhaps worse than a bored spectator. The endeavors of many actors to appear "true" can make sense in this perspective: if we sense that the character is only pretending to be crying, when we are supposed to feel sorry for him or her, we get irritated. The strategy of victimization through reframing might minimize this danger. If we get slowly drawn into the film's universe, the concrete aspects of characters' problems (or environment as in WIND) are allowed to "fill out" more than our short-term memory. When the climax arrives we will be moved to a far greater degree if we also draw on aspects of long-term memory. In a short film this may lie minutes away, in a feature film perhaps an hour. Even if we are not aware of the details in the beginning, the concretely sensed events and qualities, we must assume that these influence us - a feature film often spends half an hour getting us accustomed to a character before asking us to feel for instance suspense on his or her behalf.

Endings often seem a curious aspect of the short film. In the films using the reframing strategy, the film ends as the full impact of the problem dawns on us, i.e. as we perform the cognitive act of a reframing. This, however, is not true of EAU DE LA VIE where the film ends as the problem is solved, and we feel relieved. This is closer to most feature films' "closed" endings. One may wonder what the mechanism of the films with a curiosity-strategy is since they do not specifically solve a problem. In COFFEE AND CIGARETTES, one of the characters simply leaves, and in EATING OUT, two characters end up sitting at the counter. These films end, I suspect, when the film begins to feel boring. Since we never feel that engaged in the characters in the first place, this "open" ending is not felt as a strain. Of course there is an aspect of the "reframing act" at work since the endings resemble the beginnings, but this is not as fundamental to the ends as the slow exhaustion of curiosity.

Often when we talk of causally structured narratives, I suspect, we actually mean empathy-involving. My point can be illustrated with recourse to the theatre. When watching a stage play, I have occasionally noted that the problems of minor characters, due to vivid performances, can distract the spectator's attention from the problems of the protagonist. Since a problem, until resolved, will remain in the spectators attention, more or less in the foreground, the rest of the play can easily seem an unnecessary disturbance. As regards films, these instances, if unintended, will usually be eliminated in the editing room (although this is not necessarily the case with student films).

Implications for Film Theory

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Narrative theory is focused on the question of telling; I have discussed short films along lines of engaging. I think there is an important difference here. From my limited teaching experience, I have formed the impression that narrative theory, with its focus on plot issues (distribution of information, withholding it, etc.) is of very little help to a student filmmaker. Too much emphasis on the plot might even impair a short film, e.g. the thirty-minute long FUSION where a stock dealer conspires against his wife, causing indifference toward the characters. One is perhaps better off parodying the feature film's often complicated plot in an unbelievably fast and astonishing fashion as in THE BLOODY OLIVE.

A plot depends on our caring about the characters to engage us. If a character appeals to our compassion in too obvious a manner or before we have gotten accustomed to him or to her, we will get annoyed. Quite possibly for the same reason that we get irritated in the everyday world if people quite knowingly demand our compassion all the time, especially if they are complete strangers. One cannot overlook the fact that plot-driven films that successfully arouse our empathy, often spend half an hour doing so. Exceptions can perhaps be explained, as those using generally weak characters, such as children, that call for empathy almost by reflex, e.g. DRENGEN, DER GIK BAGLæNS. The use of stars whom we either know in advance or feel attracted to because of their personality, may also compensate for a long exposition.

Thinking along these lines is not new. Tom Gunning has suggested that we see the early film as a Cinema of Attractions, to be compared with a roller coaster ride, not a narrative.[18] It is significant that the films he is referring to, were short, one- or two-reelers. If this accounts for curiosity strategies, the films that appeal to empathy are better explained in the framework set forth by Ed Tan. When feeling empathy, he stresses, "the observational stance of the viewer is accompanied by a virtual action tendency."[19] By action tendency he means the emotion of wanting a character to be helped as in compassion, or to be near the character as in sympathy or admiration. When a film uses empathy it is strongly felt; almost as if we become physically engaged. This is probably the effect of realism, a term we will be less inclined to apply to the strategies of curiosity.

In another sense we react as if we were present in the films' universe, reacting to the wind, the tree, the landscape. This, however, should not lead us to illusionism, i.e. mistaking the film for reality. It is better to say that our attention is completely taken up by certain qualities, or better, affordances of the environment.[20] Affordance is another word for action relevance where we perceive objects and surfaces according to their momentary or general use for action. A stone can be perceived as a missile, for instance, and this does not necessarily involve a reclassification or relabeling for the perceiving subject, as Gibson contends (p. 134).

In WIND, our attention is drawn to the unpleasant coldness of the wind and the dead emptiness of the landscape. This is sensed immediately as well as the unpleasantness of water entering the boy's lungs in EAU DE LA VIE. Neither requires that we adopt an internal perspective, as suggested in recent simulation theories where we presumably reconstruct the perceptions of the character.[21] In a general sense we may speak of simulation since the affordance of water entering the boy's lungs in EAU DE LA VIE somehow, of course, is represented in the spectator's mind, but so is for instance the affordance of the wind or the tree. We will be less likely, however, to speak of cognitive identification with a tree or the wind. I suspect that the reaction toward the tree and that toward `water entering lungs' function in similar ways, and that Gibson's concept of affordance can account for both.

Short films might not require an entirely new theoretical framework from that of feature film. But it seems evident to me that some aspects of how the spectator is engaged are highlighted in a new, and perhaps more clear way, than has been possible when working with feature films. And to connect this point with our initial one: theorizing the short film might benefit from the fact that not every short film is produced by experienced professionals. The central mechanisms and parameters of failure and success in engaging the viewer become noticeable in short films, even the less well-produced.


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Eau de la vie. : 14 min. Baré, Simon. 1993. 13 min. New Zealand.

The Bloody Olive. Bal, Vincent. 1996. 10 min. Belgium.

Wind/Szél. Iványi, Marcel. 1996. 6 min. Hungary.

Coffee and Cigarettes. Jarmusch, Jim. 1986. 5 min. USA.

Sunday. Lawlor, John. 1988. 8 min. Ireland.

Fusion. Rønnow-Klarlund, Anders. 1996. 30 min. Denmark.

Eating Out. Sletaune, Pål. 1993. 7 min. Norway.

Wavelength. Snow, Michael. 1967. 45 min. USA.

Drengen, der gik baglæns. Vinterberg, Thomas. 1994. 33 min. Denmark.

[1] Stuart Dreyfus and Hubert Dreyfus, Mind over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer (Free Press, 1988).

[2] David Bordwell, The Cinema of Eisenstein (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press, 1993). [3] "Prospects for a Poetics" in David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 263-74.

[4] Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror (New York & London: Routledge, 1990), Ch. 3. [5] Bordwell's own work on the composition of scenes in Hollywood films, is also noteworthy as middle-level theorizing in David Bordwell, et al., The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (London: Routledge, 1990; First publ. 1985), pp. 63-69.

[6] Karel Reisz and Gavin Millar, The Technique of Film Editing. 2nd ed (London & Boston: Focal Press, 1988; First publ. 1968), pp. 69-122. Similar discussions on specific kinds of problems and solutions can be found in Gabriella Oldham, First Cut: Conversations with Film Editors (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

[7] Barry Salt, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis. 2nd ed (London: Starword, 1992), p. 26.

[8] Danse Macabre (London: Futura 1988; first publ. 1981).

[9] Most prominently David Bordwell, et al., The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (London: Routledge, 1990; First publ. 1985); Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker, eds. Early cinema: space-frame-narrative (London: British Film Institute, 1994); and Barry Salt, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis. 2nd ed (London: Starword, 1992).

[10] D.W. Griffith's use of the close-up is described as "a sign of the discontinuity of the discourse, at once already perforated in order to facilitate the fetischistic cutting up of the body of the text, and an index, in the narrative fabric itself, of the principle of discontinuity enshrined in editing." in Jaques Aumont, "Griffith-the Frame, the Figure". In Early cinema: space-frame-narrative, edited by Elsaesser, T. and A. Barker (London: British Film Institute, 1994), p. 356. This seems to reflect an incredible disregard of functional aspects.

[11] James Peterson, Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order: Understanding the American Avant-garde Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994).

[12] Ibid., pp. 185-86.

[13] Peterson distinguishes between three strains: the poetic, assemblage, and minimalist strain.

[14] Ed Tan calls compassion, sympathy, and admiration the three major empathetic emotions and argues that they can be seen as working simultaneously. Ed Tan, Emotion and the Structure of Narrative film: Film as an Emotion Machine, translated by Barbara Fasting. Edited by Bryant, J. and D. Zillmann, LEA's Communication Series (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Ass., 1996), pp. 177-88.

[15] For a discussion of analogue thinking, see Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1987) and on the emotion of anger especially: George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind (London & Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990; first publ. 1987), pp. 380-415.

[16] As described in James Monaco, How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History, and Theory of Film and Media. 2nd ed (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).

[17] Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror (New York & London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 94-96.

[18] Tom Gunning, "The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, its Spectator, and the Avant-garde". In Early cinema: space-frame-narrative, edited by Elsaesser, T. and A. Barker (London: British Film Institute, 1994).

[19] Ed Tan, Emotion and the Structure of Narrative film: Film as an Emotion Machine, translated by Barbara Fasting. Edited by Bryant, J. and D. Zillmann, LEA's Communication Series (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996), p. 240f. See especially ch. 6: "Character Structures, Empathy, and Interest."

[20] James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Perception (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979), ch. 8, "The Theory of Affordances." See also ch. 3, "The Meaningful Environment."

[21] Torben K. Grodal, Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings, and Cognition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 89: "cognitive identification: the viewer will try to simulate the subject-actant by constructing the subject-actant's perceptions." But as Gibson points out in his theory of affordances (p. 135), we may perceive one feature at time, e.g. `water entering lungs', not necessarily all features of an object or event. This may be impossible, he asserts.