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

On dialogue-based storytelling
in the short fiction film

Richard Raskin

It is possible to distinguish between two different modes of storytelling in the short fiction film: non-verbal and dialogue-based. Roman Polanski’s masterpiece, Two Men and a Wardrobe (Poland, 1958, 15 min.), is a perfect example of the non-verbal variety, and Polanski himself categorically argued that dialogue is out of place in a short film, stating for example:

I think that in a short it’s unpleasant to use dialogue. It’s like a piece of a feature film... When you use people in a short, if they talk you expect it’s going to last for two hours. It’s not natural, not proper to the form.[1]

Some of the best short fiction films of the late 20th Century follow Polanski’s lead in telling their stories without dialogue, such as Liz Hughes’s Cat’s Cradle (Australia, 1991, 12 min.), Marianne Olsen Ulrichsen’s Come (Norway, 1995, 4 min. 30 sec.) and Marcell Iványi’s Wind (Hungary, 1996, 6 min.), to name only three which were presented in earlier issues of p.o.v.[2]

There are, however, equally important short fiction films which tell their stories largely on the basis of dialogue, such as Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (USA, 1986, 5 min.), Nina Mimica’s The War Is Over (Italy, 1997, 7 min.), Ariel Gordon’s Goodbye Mom (Mexico, 1997, 8 min.),[3] and even more recently, Claude Saint Antoine’s New York Encounter (France, 1998, 2 min. 30 sec.).

Works of this quality make it impossible to maintain Polanski’s unconditional view that the short film should be free of dialogue. At the same time, however, student filmmakers should be warned against using too much dialogue in their films, for a number of reasons, including the following practical considerations: dialogue can be difficult 1) for beginners to write; 2) for the amateur actors who are likely to appear in student productions, to deliver convincingly and intelligibly; and 3) for non-professional production crews to record properly during shooting. (It is all too often the case in dialogue-based student productions that the one spoken line that carries the story more than all the others put together, will be the one line that the actor mumbles or that is inaudibly recorded because of an incorrectly positioned microphone.)

But even if these practical considerations posed no problem, student filmmakers should still be aware of the dangers of using dialogue excessively, because – as I will now suggest – dialogue is appropriate in the short fiction film when and only when certain basic conditions are met.

Stated in a nutshell and in the form of advice to student filmmakers, those conditions are as follows:

  • Keep your story’s focus on the here-and-now, on the interaction unfolding before our eyes, even if the dialogue touches on past or future events.
  • Keep your characters engaged in negotiating meaningful choices and opportunities, not just exchanging information.
  • Make every spoken line not only character-specific but also character-defining and character-differentiating.
  • Let the very timbre of the voices we hear and the characters’ manner of speaking, be essential to the flavor of the story.
  • Make the non-verbal components of the storytelling as salient as possible.
  • Never use dialogue to put into words the underlying meaning of your film.
  • Never use dialogue to convey something that could be enacted non-verbally before the camera.

No one film will fully embody all of these principles. However, the best dialogue-based shorts are likely to illustrate a number of them.

Looking at New York Encounter in this perspective – and moving quickly in order not to belabor the obvious – we can see that:

  • The film focuses on the here-and-now of Steve and Helen’s off the wall interaction, on what happens between them, including their self-presentation, mutual attraction, shifting roles with respect to who takes the initiative and who responds, the wish for and effect of the kiss, etc.
  • Although these characters immediately exchange information about profession, residence, income and civil status, they do so in the context of negotiating a date and also a kiss.
  • Steve and Helen have so much in common that their lines are not as character-differentiating as might otherwise be the case, though the final exchange clearly shows that Steve cannot even grasp the concept of living in the present while Helen can, in the aftermath of a kiss.
  • Gordon Elliott’s (Steve’s) Australian accent is an extra ingredient enriching the dialogue, just as in Coffee and Cigarettes, Roberto Benigni’s Italian accent adds flavor to the interaction.
  • The difference in the actors’ heights is used to vary the camera angles and make the film more interesting in purely visual terms, as do certain particularly memorable shots, such as the one in which Helen rises vertically into frame after the collision, with an almost goofy look of availability and interest on her face.
  • Neither character ever concludes "We really don’t know how to live in the present" – a line that would have let all the air out of the balloon and sent the film plummeting to the ground with a final thud.
  • None of the spoken words – none of the initiatives taken by Steve before the kiss or by Helen after the kiss, and none of the replies given by either character concerning his or her availability – could have been replaced by a non-verbal enactment before the camera.

In addition to meeting those criteria, the dialogue in this film is also clearly a parody of a conversation, in which norms to which the viewer presumably subscribes are systematically broken by the characters, whose unavailability for a date because of previous professional or social obligations is also parodistically pushed to absurd limits. As a result, the dialogue repeatedly takes the viewer by surprise and provides the enjoyment of being in on a joke.

* *

Under the conditions specified above, dialogue can work beautifully in a short fiction film. And although it may well be the case that the seven constraints proposed here can apply to the feature film as well as to the short, I would argue that the density of the storytelling found in the short requires an even more judicious use of dialogue than does the feature.

to the top of the page

1 From an interview appearing in Joseph Gelmis, The Film Director as Superstar (London: Secker & Warburg, 1971), pp. 144-145.

2 Articles and other material on Cat's Cradle can be found in p.o.v. no. 1 (March 1996), on Come in p.o.v. no. 7 (March 1999), and on Wind in p.o.v. no. 5 (March 1998). In the present context, my article, "Wordless eloquence in Come", might be of some interest to the reader (p.o.v. no. 7, pp. 35-44).

3 See p.o.v. no. 7 (March 1999) for articles and an interview on Goodbye Mom. Chapters in my forthcoming book, The Art of Storytelling in the Short Fiction Film (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2001), will be devoted to Coffee and Cigarettes and The War Is Over.

to the top of the page