P:O.V. No.7 - Three Recent Short Fiction Films, COME

The most beautiful, the most difficult and the most important...
An analysis of COME in the perspective of the short film format

Gitte Hansen

What is specific to the short format?

In 1948 the English magazine Documentary Film News arranged a competition for the best definition of the concept documentary. At that time the English documentary film movement had existed for around 18 years[1], and they had not yet found or agreed upon a definitive definition. The first prize went to the following contribution:

Documentary films are the films that are made by the people who make documentary films.[2]

The winning contribution had (in addition to irony) the advantage of covering all ideas and trends originating from their movement. And indeed it is tempting to use the same recipe for a purely external definition of the short film, since there seem to be as many short film definitions as there are short films. Bevin Yeatman argues that short film production is part of a continuing process of complex cultural relationships, and states that the short film itself is never at rest. He concludes:

Short film is something that we define because of the context we place it in, and there are a myriad of contexts to choose.[3]

In a strictly academic sense, it is not possible to define the short film as being one genre[4], but rather as a certain film practice, for which different traditions exist throughout its history. In this sense it is arguable that in a number of ways, the short film is a kind of institution as far as financing, production and distribution are concerned.[5]

When the short film is defined in terms of its duration, it is often characterized as being shorter than the feature film, for which time-slots in cinemas are at least 70 minutes. But criteria of duration vary. When, for example, international short film festivals - which constitute one of the more important windows for short films - include criteria of duration in their guidelines[6], they often set the limit at 40 minutes.

However, aside from the mechanical criterion of duration, particular aesthetic concepts are often discussed when professionals from e.g. the film community and academic forums attempt to define and evaluate the art of the short film. Furthermore, short films are sometimes divided into categories and genres. In the present article, I will focus on one specific short fiction film, without placing it in any category. For this reason, I will not touch on the subject of categorization any further.[7]

Having worked with providing information on and distributing short films for a number of years, I find the (more or less short) duration of films interesting, not in terms of mechanical categorization, e.g. in relation to distribution, but as part of the art and means of expression of the film, and as an important factor in the spectator's perception of a particular film. Interpretating short films (and for that matter, feature films as well) is a process of oscillation between the form and the content.[8] The form, including the duration of the film, does not exist apart from the content but rather corresponds to it precisely and in a number of ways. The timing and the duration of the film are part of its means of expression. From this perspective, Jacques Kermabon describes the acknowledged Dutch short film maker, Johan van der Keuken, in the following way:

Il a réalisé une cinquantaine de films, sans considérer le court métrage comme un apprentissage mais comme la durée adéquate au projet, qu'il voulait conduire.[9]

While recognizing the form of a particular film, we gradually approach its meanings which could not be expressed otherwise than in a certain form. The form becomes the content itself. With this as the basis for his discussion, Marek Hendrykowski takes a step away from a purely external definition, and characterizes the peculiarity of the short film as follows:

The short subject operates with its own aesthetics, the essence of which is the most advanced conciseness and economy of the employed means of expression.[10]

It is in the perspective of Hendrykowski's characterization that I will now focus on the short film Come.

The most beautiful, the most difficult and the most important...

- this anaphora is the synopsis[11] for Marianne Olsen Ulrichsen's 4:30 minute fiction film Come (Kom, Norway, 1995), and signals a huge theme. Ulrichsen's film, with its judiciously selected effects and precise composition and timing, is basically a story about a life- long (and still strong) love between a man and a woman. The film is an example of how a short fiction in its concise and momentary form lets its spectator experience depth as underlying meaning, while engaging the spectator in the vast, underlying theme of love.

But how does the filmmaker succeed in this? How has she composed this precise work which covers so much ground within a duration of less than five minutes?

Richard Raskin has formulated five parameters[12]: simplicity/ depth, causality/choice, character/object, consistency/surprise, image/ sound, which I have chosen to use in the following analysis in order to illuminate the construction of the story and thereby the aesthetic qualities of this short fiction film. I find Raskin's parameters useful as tools for this purpose, because they are related especially to short fiction and enable us to take into account the particular conciseness of expression and the amount of time that belongs to the short film format.

Moments and years

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The action in the film Come operates on several temporal levels. First of all two moments: a present action and a flashback action. The present action takes place in the living room of an old couple and almost corresponds to the duration of the film. An old woman (in close-ups) by a window remembers (flashback) herself as young girl when she makes her love leave his friends and follow her, by showing him his pocket watch in her hand. Remote from the others, she says come to him, making him go with her to a cabin. The flash-back takes place on a summer night in the countryside and covers a moment of her young love from the time when she sees him, makes him follow her and they kiss in a cabin. However, in the film the flash-back lasts only a few minutes and corresponds to the old woman's remembering. Back in the present time, the old woman now winds the same watch while sitting by the window. Then we see her in the sofa with her lover now grown old; she puts the watch in his pocket, their hands caress each other, and she whispers the same word in his ear, come.

The construction of the two levels of time is very clear and simple, and allows the spectator time and space to participate in the construction of the story, and in this context a third time of action becomes relevant: namely the time between the present time and the flashback. This period of more than half a century is never shown in the film, but is left to the spectator to construct, by showing two moments of her life. The construction gives her character an inner space and the film a temporal depth. Using Raskin's terminology there is a balance between simplicity and depth.

The real love

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Raskin states that causality is necessary for the inner logic and coherence of a story. In the film Come, the spectator has to believe immediately that the two characters are in love in order to follow the rest of the story; the spectator has to believe that their love and affection originates within the characters themselves, that their love is real. It is in the power of the characters to act on this situation, as is underlined by other means of expression. The filmmaker focuses (e.g. by using long close-ups) on the characters' facial expressions, on the intensity in their eyes when they look at each other, and on their hands which caress each other. The timing and expressions give the spectator time and reason to create and understand them as being in love. Furthermore, she has only a few seconds to win his interest, to make him leave his friends and go with her. She shows him that she has his watch. During the following moments in the story, anything can happen and the outcome depends on his choice. Will he let her down or leave his friends and follow her? His following her is a redemption and a confirmation of their love. The characters become alive, the story becomes alive and the balance of causality and choice following Raskin's parameters is perfect.

His watch in her hand

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The same watch appears in the flashback and in the present time, namely his watch in her hand, which she gives to him. The watch is first seen on the table in the present time. We see her hand touch it just before she seems to think of the past. The watch is charged with meaning, it makes her remember and think of a special moment. In its appearance in the flashback it is now a symbol of their relationship. There is a reason that she has his watch! - or rather, there is a good reason to assume that they have been together before. In the flashback she shows him his watch as a sign of what they did when she got it. In its second appearance in the present time she winds the watch with a smile. The watch is now enriched with a storytelling function, since there is a reason she still has his watch. Now the watch not only symbolizes their relationship, but also their lifetime together. The old woman winding the watch shows how there is still time and life in their relationship. As the driving force in the story, she once again gives the watch back to him, now with them sitting in the sofa. There is a dynamic interplay between her as the main character and the watch as object.


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As a young girl, she acts as the driving force in their meeting. She goes to him, she attracts his attention, shows him the watch and speaks the invitation, come. When half a century later she still has his watch, winds it and gives it to him, her figure remains consistent. She enjoys remembering their young love, and confirms their still being together by her act of giving him the watch once again. At the same time her action seems like a closing gesture to her temporary flash-back (and to the film as such), and their old hands with wedding rings now caress each other, symbolizing their life-long marriage. However, when she subsequently takes her time to lean towards him and whispers come in his ear, she takes the spectator by surprise. Her act is a surprise but still loyal to her character. Her saying come is a repetition in relation to the young couple going into the cabin to kiss. The spectator does not expect her to say come as an old woman. But in fact she confirms that not only is she the same, but also that their relationship remains unchanged. There is a perfect balance between consistency and surprise.

Pattern of details

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The filmmaker's composition of pictures and sounds is simple and economical. All means of expression have a specific and to some degree a symbolic role to play. There is a careful balance between sounds and pictures in order to concentrate and optimize each means of expression. As part of a pattern, means of expression are repeated in a certain rhythm. But when the design of the pattern becomes clear to us, an overall theme about life-long love makes sense in the film. The effect of the pattern is also related to the very short duration of the film, because it gives a clarity to the design, which is very important.

There are very few camera movements, only simply composed pictures, often close-ups with very few or slow movements within the frame, and each shot is held for a long time.

Verbal communication is kept to a minimum because other means of expression are used, e.g. close ups of their faces, of them kissing, of his hand on her breast, of her winding the watch, of her giving him the watch, sounds of breathing and music, etc. Only one word is spoken (twice) during the 4:30 minutes, namely come, which also is the title of the film. A quietness dominates the film, especially in the present time. This gives the spectator a reason to concentrate on pictures, on her face, which gives an emotional depth.

On the other hand the economical use of sound and the creation of silence at the same time gives her word come a very strong effect that makes her a driving force, and also sets his action in motion in the flashback. The imperative come initiates action, but as she repeats the word in the present time, the film ends. Here the word creates an open ending and illustrates that their relationship (with all its facets) goes on. The off screen music heard immediately after she says come (when the credits are shown) has a symbolic role. It is namely the same music we heard when they kissed in the cabin as young lovers, and therefore now hints to a sexual relationship between the old couple. Visual and auditive means of expression, image and sound, are working together in balance like single details in a pattern.

Summing up

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In order to illuminate the design of the story and the aesthetic qualities of the short film Come, I focused first on what characterizes the short format. Not in a social, external or institutional perspective, but rather in relation to the aesthetic concept of the film.

I have assumed that the short film operates with its own aesthetics, the essence of which is conciseness and economy of employed means of expression, and I have considered the unit of time not only as a categorization of films, but as a tool when making or watching them, instinctively or deliberately.

By asking the question as to how Come engages its spectator in its underlying and abstract theme of love, I have shown how it allows the spectator time and space to participate in the construction of and reflect upon the story. I have used Raskin's five parameters in order to illuminate the story design and aesthetic qualities. In Come I have found that simplicity allows depth by economized means of expression, because the spectator within the short period of narration understands them as concentrated and loaded, e.g. two moments of time and action cover a life-long period of love between two persons.

In the film there is causality (because of coherence and inner logic in the story) but there are also choices taken by individual characters. And there is an interplay between the main character and an object, the watch, charged with meaning. The watch, combined with the woman's actions, creates in turn new actions and meanings.

The spectator has reasons not only to believe in the characters because of their consistency, but is also motivated to have an interest in them and the story by being taken by surprise.

The story design is an important virtue of the short film. In Come means of expression have both a specific and to some degree a symbolic role to play, as well as being part of the overall expression. By being simple and clear the film allows the spectator time and space to participate in the construction of and to reflect upon the story, which engages him or her in the vast theme of the most beautiful, the most difficult and the most important...


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Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Routledge, 1988.

DF-Bulletin, nr. 19, 1949.

Hendrykowski, Marek. The Art of the Short Film. Poznan: Ars Nova, 1998.

Kermabon, Jacques. Johan van der Keuken. Le monde à portée de main in BREF, Le magazine du court métrage, 39 hiver 1998.

Raskin, Richard. Five Parameters for Story Design in the Short Fiction Film, in P.O.V. - A Danish Journal of Film Studies, no. 5 (March 1998), Department of Information and Media Science, Aarhus University, pp. 163-207.

Rofekamp, Jan. How to Sell Your Short Film. International Short Film Conference, 1989.

Yeatman, Bevin. What makes a short film good? in P.O.V. - A Danish Journal of Film Studies, no. 5 (March 1998), Department of Information and Media Science, Aarhus University, pp. 151-162.

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[1] The Scot, John Grierson, is the dominant figure within the classic English documentary movement. In 1930, he was authorized to start his own film group within Empire Marketing Board, a British government institution. Grierson's group made films for the government, but also developed their own thoughts and theories on documentary films, which they called "a creative treatment of actuality". The movement inspired filmmakers from all over the world and has a central place in the history and tradition of documentary films today.

[2] DF-Bulletin, no. 19, 1949.

[3] Bevin Yeatman, "What makes a Short Film Good?" in P.O.V. no. 5 (March 1998), p. 157.

[4] I define genre as an institutional system of categorization that builds on socially, culturally and historically determined codes, conventions or contracts in between the sender and the receiver.

[5] Institutionalized areas for short films are primarily: 1. Sources for financing (e.g. funding bodies and film institutes with special guidelines for short films, and commissioning editors for short films etc.). 2. Production (production companies, producers and directors working mainly with short films, established means of scriptwriting and production). 3. Distribution (film institutes and other public institutions such as libraries buying and distributing short films to schools and private use, international distribution companies for short films, international markets and festivals for short films, cinemas and tv-stations with time-slots and strands for short films, buyers from tv-stations for short films etc). Concerning distribution, The International Short Film Conference has published: How to Sell Your Short Films, by Jan Rofekamp.

[6] E.g. International Short Film Festival of Tampere, max. 30 minutes; International Short Film Festival of Oberhausen, max. 35 minutes; International Short Film Festival of Vila do Conde, max. 40 minutes; and International Short Film Festival of Clermont-Ferrand, max. 40 minutes.

[7] Marek Hendrykowski lists different short film genres in his publication The Art of the Short Film, including both fiction and documentaries, p. 131.

[8] David Bordwell concludes the same on narration: "In the fiction film, narration is the process whereby the film's syuzhet and the style interact in the course of cueing and channeling the spectator's construction of the fabula. " Narration in the Fiction Film (Routledge, 1988), p. 53.

[9] Jacques Kermabon, Johan van der Keuken. Le monde à portée de main in BREF, Le magazine du court métrage, 39 hiver 1998, p. 13.

[10] Marek Hendrykowski, The Art of the Short Film (Poznan: Ars Nova, 1998), p. 109.

[11] The synopsis is used in several festival- and market catalogues, e.g. Nordisk Panorama 1996.

[12] Richard Raskin, "Five Parameters for Story Design in the Short Fiction Film," in P.O.V. no. 5 (March 1998), pp. 163-207.

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