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

COME and the pictorial tradition:
the meaning of the hands

Søren Kolstrup

Nor do not saw the air too much with your hands, thus; but use all gently..
Hamlet, III, 2

Figure 1: Detail from an anonymous 16th Century French painting

Introduction: The Ericsson campaign and Come

At the end of the year 1998, Ericsson made a sales campaign for mobile telephones. The newspaper ads showed the photo of an elderly couple sitting across from one another at a table in a restaurant (or is it a kitchen?). He puts his hands on the table; she puts her hands on his. Directly on the photo, there are two texts: "Kærlighedens ord dør aldrig" ("Words of love never die.") and "Make yourself heard" (in English). Under the photo there are 14 lines of text, in which the company expounds its ideas about communication, love and age!

Figure 2: Detail from the Ericsson campaign

Come uses similar pictures. Come has a moral, which could also be expressed by the sentence in the ad.

At first sight the similarities between the two are embarrassing!

The language of the hands,
a short cut to the meaning?

to the top of the page
The face and the hands are the two most important general paradigms by which (figurative) pictures generate meaning. The paradigm of the different facial expressions probably provides a weaker code than the different forms of the hand, because the language of the hand is based on a set of distinctive features which can be quite clearly followed throughout the history of (European) art.

The hand is an index. The hand shows the traces of time and of work. The texture of a hand can tell the experience of a lifetime, even better than the face can do, whereas the face tells us a story of decay.

The hand can tell us the story of an action. It is a vector, a means of action, and it gives us access to symbolic processes, to the thoughts of the protagonists. As there is no space for developing this point, I can only recommend that the reader consult Kress and Leuwen p. 43ff. and p. 108ff.

The language of the hands in the pictures is a very complex system, a conglomerate of several domains. A cognitive researcher like Paul Messaris would say that we understand the language of the hand in pictures because we draw inferences from our experience of gesture language and other movements of the hand in our everyday life. See Messaris p.14ff. and p.71ff.

The pictorial language incorporates at least three domains from "the outside world": firstly the hand of our everyday work, the hand at work and the hand at rest, secondly the gesture language of the hands in everyday life and in more ritual settings (from conversation to prayers) and finally the conventions of the theatre, of ballet, etc. The boundaries between the three domains are by no means clear-cut and some conventions may change quite rapidly such as those in the gestures of the rock singers!

The pictorial language has more or less integrated and formalized all these (changing) conventions, at least to some extent. Thus we can establish a scale from "little convention" (realistic or natural photos or paintings of the hand-at-work) to the totally conventionalized emblematic expressions (the praying hand), which Fausing and Larsen call iconographic codes (Fausing and Larsen p.67ff.), and, in between, we have all the more or less conventionalized expressions, as in Come.

Look at the Figures 3 and 4. Women and men do not put their hand under their cheek in the same way when they resting or thinking! At least they did not in the paintings of the 19th Century. Women separate the index finger (and possibly also the middle finger) from the rest of the fingers, whereas men keep the fingers together, possibly bending them. It is (or was it?) far from elegant for a woman to keep the stretched fingers together under her cheek, or even worse, bent them, as men do.

Figure 3: Detail from a portrait by Ingres.

Figure 4: Detail from a photo from about 1890.

These two examples may help us see the factors or the distinctive features in the way the hand generates meaning:

  • the degree of aperture of the hand and the degree of tension;

  • the position of the fingers in relation to each other; (Which fingers are close to which?)

  • whether the hand appears "alone" or working together with the other; (Do the hands touch each other and in which way?)

  • the way, in which the hands are positioned in relation to the body. (Are they close to the body or distant?)

Obviously there are many combinations and some exclusions: some positions exclude each other like grammatical features in verbal language. All this may seem strange, even ridiculous, but it works, and like verbal language it mainly works at the subconscious level. We can find illustrations of this throughout the history of European art from its very beginning (10th Century): the early medieval ritual gestures preceding facial expressions, the expressiveness of baroque body language, the sentimental bourgeois paintings of the late 18th Century (Greuze), the realistic painters, among whom especially Repin was a master in painting hands.

What makes this art and not mere communication is probably the fact that here, as well as anywhere else, the tiny changes or biasing of our expectations revive the expression. Folded hands are a convention for prayer, for meditation (depending on the context). The folded hands as convention demand a symmetric construction.

Figure 5: Detail from a woodcut by Albreccht Dürer.

Figure 6: Detail from a modern photo.

Look at Figures 5 and 6. The asymmetric construction opens up for other, deviant interpretations, here probably sorrow and despair. In Figure 7, Mary Magdalene does not keep her fingers folded and she holds up her hands. This particular combination is a sign of revolt, of protest.

Figure 7: Detail from the Isenheim Altar by Grünewald.

The hand can create an incredible variety of meanings that are based on the indexical features of the hand, on the distinctive features of its representation and on the combinations of these features. When it comes to the intensity of the meaning, however, facial expressiveness is probably the stronger paradigm.

Come, simplicity and intensity of a minimalist art

to the top of the page
Within 4 or 5 minutes the film is to represent the essence of a whole life's experience, contained in the overall and classical structure of a Now-Then-Now. This can only be realized if the creator uses a concentrated method of expression, a kind of metonymy, a synecdoche, where a part, an element, stands for the totality.

Language has disappeared from Come with the exception of the two imperatives, both collecting and accumulating all the "information" presented by the picture story.

The film must necessarily tell the story by means of pictures; no words could lead to the concentrated sense of the imperative "Come." The pictures should not be ambiguous. They should be clear, but not unequivocal. This necessity for minimalist simplicity implies that the camera cannot draw attention to itself as a storyteller by using impressive movements. Of course there are some isolated camera movements: a zoom-in shot, a pan and a tilt, but in fact, most of the shots are rather static, or show a very simple action, which is often completed within the shot.

The film concentrates on the faces (their expression, the gaze of the eyes and, linked to this, the p.o.v. camera and the subjective camera). The meaning, and to some degree, the actions are created between the shots, in the montage.

The hand is the decisive factor. The movements of the hand form the actions, or better still, form the synecdoches for the complexity of the story and the hand (possibly better than the facial expressions) shows a long life's experience through its different textures.

The evolution of the film

to the top of the page
Shot 3: The old woman looks vaguely at something, outside the window or is it inside herself? Her closed hand is under her cheek. The stretched finger of the 19th Century would not tell a serious story; it would be a ridiculous attempt at (false) feminine elegance. We are far from the conventional representation of a sexualized hand!

Shot 6: The old hand with its traces of work and rheumatism, the shot accumulates the signs of time

Shot 10: The hands of desire, but seen at a distance: the hands have no texture and thus present a secondary story, the mirror for what is told in the following shots .

Shot 11: We should now be able to identify the hand as the hand from shots 3 and 6. It is a young hand. It does not have the texture of age, but it has the texture of work. It is rather dirty! It is a hand which has already become acquainted with work. It has no false elegance.

Shots 14 - 46: The seduction is told by the use of the gaze (the persons' thoughts, intentions, feelings), whereas the actions are mostly told by the hands shown in close-ups (synecdoches).

In shots 16, 17 and 24, her hands are active, holding the watch and showing it. His hands are helpless, seeking the watch in shot 27, and in shot 30 he closes his hand in a powerless way. Her hands become more active. They put the watch back in his pocket (shot 32) and she takes his hand (shot 34). In 39 and 40 her hands begin the final seduction: in 41 and 43 their hands clutch each other and thus the contract is made. They are engaged. His hands can take over in shots 44 - 46.

Last shots: We return to Now: shot 48 corresponds to 16, shot 49 to 32, shot 51 to 41 and 43. Of course her second "come" is the important thing, but the imperative would make no sense at all, if the hands had not built up the meaning, if the correspondences had not established the time, and finally confirmed the old contract.


to the top of the page
The balance is delicate. We should receive just enough information necessary for reconstructing the story of a life (look at shot 51), but just sufficient information to avoid redundancy in the sense of superfluous information. That would lead to sentimentality, and sentimentality is the great challenge for the fabula of Come.

The Ericsson campaign may be considered as a counter illustration. She grasps both his hands. The visual information is ambiguous: does she ask for help, or does she want to dominate him, or what is the situation? The text does not help us. The advertisement says, "Words of love never die", but the sense of these words is killed by "Make yourself heard" and from the 14 lines below the photo, the message is all about a product. The photo becomes sentimental and untrustworthy, which is a shame, because it's a nice photo.

Come escapes the Scylla of sentimentality (overloading with information and feeling) and the Charybdis of a simplicity, which does not tell anything or is too unambiguous. This is achieved by the use of synecdochic pictures, and maybe by a tiny dose of empathetic irony. The blend of age-old picture schemes with an impossible fabula (everlasting love) is a masterpiece of refreshing novelty.

Shot 3

Shot 6

Shot 11

Shot 16

Shot 27

Shot 30

Shot 32A

Shot 32B

Shot 34

Shot 39

Shot 41

Shot 43

Shot 44

Shot 48

Shot 49

Shot 51


to the top of the page

Bent Fausing og Peter Larsen. Billeder analyse og historie. Dansklærerforeningen/Skov, 1982.

Kress, Gunther and van Leuwen, Theo. Reading Images. London: Routledge 1996.

Messaris, Paul. Visual "Literacy". Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: Westview, 1994.

to the top of the page