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

On the interplay of consistency and surprise
in the short fiction film

Richard Raskin

In an earlier article,[1] I suggested that in the best short fiction films, any major character will have definition, a central core of attributes that remain constant, and yet will behave in a way that is totally unpredictable. Pål Sletaune's Eating Out (Norway, 1993, 6 min.) was among the examples used to illustrate this interplay of consistency and surprise, which I take to be a hallmark of living characters and good story design.

Shot 15

Shot 16

For example, when Roy orders Cook at gunpoint to make a burger for Julie during the holdup, Cook answers: "I can't do two things at the same time. Do you want the money first and then the burger, or the burger first and then the money?" This totally unpredictable response delights us and takes us by surprise, though it is perfectly consistent with Cook's earlier reply when he was first ordered to hand over the money while scraping the grill: "Can't you see I'm busy? You'll have to wait until I'm finished."

In examples of this kind, the interplay of consistency and surprise involves an unchanging character definition and a series of norm-defying behaviors which take us by surprise even though they remain "in character". These small surprises occurring throughout the film bring essentially unchanging characters to life and give us a sense that we can never foresee what will happen next. One way in which this interplay is managed involves momentarily overriding our expectations as to how oddly a given character reacts, by placing that character in a situation evoking a logical expectation (such as complying unconditionally with a gunman's request for food). When the character then behaves in harmony with the unusual expectations we should have held on to, we experience both consistency and surprise in an interplay based on the idiosyncratic nature of the character.

In Goodbye Mom (Mexico, 1997, 8 min.), however, we find a very different kind of interplay of consistency and surprise. Here, the woman character is initially defined for us as a grieving mother, and her desparate request that the young man say "Goodbye Mom" to her is understood as genuinely motivated by a need to take leave of her dead son. At the close of the film, after the man has complied with her wish and said "Goodbye Mom" to her twice before she leaves the supermarket with her wagon full of groceries, the truth comes out: having him say "Goodbye Mom" within earshot of the cashier, was a manoeuvre designed to trap him into paying her bill. Here she is suddenly and unexpectedly redefined for us as a trickster, and when that happens, we can see in retrospect that everything she has said and done is perfectly consistent that this new definition as well as the original one. Here, it is a sudden shift in the very defintion of the character that takes us by surprise.

Shot 17

Shot 18

A similar shift is found in Nina Mimica's The War Is Over (Italy, 1997, 5 min.), in which a soldier phones his family from the front lines to say that he is well and will soon be home, and to ask whether he may bring a friend home with him for a while. When his father says yes, that there was no need even to ask, the son explains that his friend has lost a leg in the war. (We are led to think that a soldier standing next to him, and apparently on crutches, is the man he is referring to.) The father now explains with some embarrassment that so patent a reminder of the war would be too burdensome psychologically for the mother, who suffers from severe asthma attacks, and that it would be better to wait a while before bringing that friend home. The son tells his father that he understands. When he hangs up, and the man who had been standing next to him takes his place at the telephone, we can see that the new caller is perfectly mobile. We are then shown the son moving away from the phone, and see that he is the one on crutches and missing a leg.

In both Goodbye Mom and The War Is Over, an initial character definition is unexpectedly replaced by another, and the behaviors seen to be consistent with the original one are now radically reinterpreted in the light of the new definition, with which they are just as consistent, though in a way not formerly suspected. This second kind of interplay, involving one decisive surprise at the end of the film, dynamically reconfigures our understanding of the entire story as a character suddenly changes shape before our eyes, and gives us a sense that we had been taken in by appearances strategically designed to conceal some underlying reality.

This deception-based interplay of consistency and surprise involves first fooling and then disabusing the viewer and its success depends on three factors: 1) the degree to which the new definition of the character adequately covers both a motivation for concealment and the behaviors we had initially misinterpreted; 2) our not guessing in advance what was actually going on; and 3) our not feeling cheated by the little trick that has been played on us by the filmmaker, when the truth is revealed.

What we have then are two very different kinds of interplay of consistency and surprise, one based on characters' idiosyncracies, the other on a strategic deception, and which may be summarized as follows:

idiosyncratic-based interplay of consistency and surprise

Eating Out

deception-based interplay of consistency and surprise

Goodbye Mom
The War Is Over

  • unpredictable, norm-defying character behavior consitutes a series of small surprises throughout the film

  • the surprising behaviors are consistent with an unchanging and idiosyncratic character definition
  • a sudden change in the very definition of a character constitutes one big surprise at the end of the film, revealing a strategically designed deception that had been put over on another character and on the viewer

  • both the initial and final character definitions are consistent with the characterÕs behavior

[1] "Five parameters for story design in the short fiction film," p.o.v. no. 5 (March 1998), especially Consistency/Surprise . See also "Eating Out and the æsthetics of surprise" in p.o.v. no. 3 (March 1997).

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