P:O.V. No.9 - Two Recent Short Fiction Films, NEW YORK ENCOUNTER

New York Encounter
or the breaking of the rules

Søren Kolstrup

This ultra short fiction film relies basically on language. The plot is based on language; language makes the action progress after an initial visual event. Only at one particular moment does the visual action take over.

A pedantic introduction: a reminder of the rules of conversation

Language in this film works by breaking some of the fundamental rules of conversation.

A normal conversation is built up of very small units, either adjacency pairs such as question-answer, action-reaction, etc. or of more complicated triple moves such as request-reply-feed-back. The opening of a conversation has specific rules. There are even rules for closing a conversation, or better still, a linguistic interaction. Moreover there are rules for the linguistic exchanges in specific (social) situations and rules bound to the different roles we have in specific conversations, etc. We expect every one to talk according to these rules and are shocked if people do not. Finally there are different social norms regulating the content of the exchanges: what are we allowed to tell to which conversation partner in which situation? These (social-semantic) rules are as different from culture to culture as the rules for the construction of the linguistic sequences. (For more details see the "General note".)

The conversational movement

The dialogue in this film can be divided into five movements:

1. Steve: Oh ..Sor… - Helen: ..$100,000 a year
2. Steve: Can I . . - Steve: No, no
3. Steve: Could we. . - Helen: Okay
4. Steve: All right (??). . Helen: Not at all
5. Helen: Ah listen . . - Steve: right now??

Each of these small movements or exchanges is characterised by a specific use of, or playing with the rules of conversation and the rules of appropriate behaviour. (That is, which type of discourse is appropriate in a given situation.)

Establishing of the story and the social background in exchange 1

The two persons meet each other in a clash, a jump cut that is not according to the Hollywood rules for establishing scenes. We have been warned! This opening movement breaks the rules of conversation in a rather brutal way. Each of the lines of dialogue consists of five elements which, in a normal conversation, would be linked as five exchanges (reciprocal pairs or triple moves). Here we have a reconstruction of a normal exchange, which, had it really taken place, would have been extremely boring.

    1: Oh, sor.. sorry. I am sorry  >  expression of forgiving…….
    2: I am Steve  >  Nice to meet you. Helen
    3: Non verbal expression  >  I am a lawyer (+ expression) >  I am a fashion designer
    4: Non verbal expression  >  I live on Fifth Avenue at Central Park (? Expression) >  I guess the windows of my apartment face yours from the west side of Central Park at a distance of approximately a mile.
    5: I earn $250,000 a year  >  I earn $100,000 a year

Clearly the actual text has avoided all the introductory stuff: the opening with the triple moves, not for the sake of the economy but to create a new sense, some kind of connotation.

What happens when the five exchanges in the normalised version are reduced to one, when the rules for verbal exchanges are broken?

The words have an effect of straightness, of efficiency and already at this syntactic-pragmatic level they give us a sense of ironical distance. We have been warned once more; the two rejoinders are a contract. This first movement is a (gentle) parody of the way we open up for new relations – at least if we are well off, middle class Americans.

The first movement establishes equally well some other values (other than straightness and efficiency): the American attachment to material values, to prestigious living and to trendy jobs – the ones we all know from television.

Finally, the opening establishes or introduces the gender values or characteristics. Steve takes the initiative, he earns more than she, he is taller than she is. This last point is clearly indicated by the camera angle. He is seen in a low angle shot (the way she sees him). She is seen with a bird’s eye view (the way he sees her). We are presented with three paradigms: the paradigm of initiative (from initiative to passiveness), the paradigm of richness (more or less rich, that is, degrees of richness), and the paradigm of size. This way of stressing the paradigms behind the syntagmatic development is an old procedure. In Hans Christian Andersen’s story "The Tinderbox" we have the same use of paradigmatic exposition:

Copper money eyes like teacups normal big dog
Silver money eyes like mill’s stones very big dog
Gold money eyes like "Runde tårn" enormous dog

The usefulness of the paradigmatic exposition is of course that it presents a description in a simple and clear pattern. In minimum time we know how the elements are related. The matching elements of the opening point out the paradigmatic structure of the world.

All this with ironic distance.

Exchange 2: establishing the personal background

This small exchange is much more "normal", but Steve continues anyhow to ask three questions in one block. This is still against the normal rules for conversation. Moreover it is equally aimed against the rules of discourse used in court, where the poor accused must answer each of these identification questions before the examination can continue. Helen gives a global answer "no", but adds "at all" which is not logical because it implies extent or degree of – and in normal procedures you are either married or not (from a legal point of view), either you have children or you haven’t (that is, you have been recognised as a father or mother). This little "at all" reduces the professional discourse of Steve and she begins to take initiatives.

Exchange 3: establishing the contract

Now the structure of dialogue becomes absolutely normal, as it has to! Steve plays the role of the man who takes the initiative, who has a goal. Yet they both postpone the date to save their social image: the busy modern people who can only foresee a quick lunch five months from now. However, in order to play this postponing strategically, you must use a normal dialogue pattern for the request or type of reply. This is exactly what happens in the film. Only such a dialogue pattern can construct the narrative basic line, which leads to the temporary halt in "okay".

Exchange 4: lawyer’s arguments and action-reaction

They have got a date, but the narrative cannot stop here. There is a narrative movement but it would have to come to a stop without solution or with a half solution. The narrative has to continue.

Steve proposes that a date implies kissing. This he does using a strongly professional discourse, the language usage of the lawyers. He begins with a formal, argumentative or explanatory conjunction "since" and continues by using a hypothetical construction "it seems". He uses a formal polite style and a hypothetical mode "would it be… inconvenient". The expression "in any way" denotes the lawyer’s prudence taking into account all possible inconveniences or misfortunes that his question might arouse.

Now, finally language leaves room for non-linguistic action: the kissing. The film might stop here: it begins with a physical action, builds the rest of the narrative on linguistic elements to end with a physical action and a psychological state (where she is visibly pleased after the kiss). Truth lies in the picture, while language can be true or it can cheat us! Yet her expression (truth) makes the five (not six!) months’ waiting psychologically unacceptable!

Exchange 5: the hour of truth

The lawyer’s discourse collapses. The protagonists repeat words, they stumble, they are uncertain. The social image crumbles. The dialogue resembles more and more a simple every day conversation. Steve has lost initiative, asks simple questions, and he no longer knows what his position is. The lawyer has vanished. By contrast, she is in possession of the initiative for making the date come closer and closer. They rushed forward when Steve proposed the date; they rush back after the kiss.

Then, if you begin to count and examine the details (a very pedantic procedure), you will see that now the trial will be finishing "towards the end of May" instead of at a date "that takes us into July".


This ultra short film is constructed according to fundamental narrative rules. It does so on the background of a paradigmatic skeleton (social and gender values). However, the effects of the film, its humor and irony are based on the breaking of the social rules for conversation and other linguistic exchanges. It is absolutely necessary that the viewing audience at least knows the fundamentals of these rules.

General note

You can find the rules for conversations and other linguistic face to face exchanges in an astonishing number of texts. I recommend the following:

Margaret Berry (1987): "Is teacher an unanalysed concept?" in Halliday and Fawcett (ed): New developments in systemic linguistics. London New York, Frances Pinter.

Robert Vion (1992): La communication verbale. Paris, Hachette.

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