This afternoon, I popped along to see Accelerator 2, which is part of the Melbourne Film Festival’s showcase of short films. I always try to get along to see some of the shorts, and this year’s offerings were particularly good, and particularly thought provoking.
They tell stories so well and in such a short period of time, that I was led to compare the world of short films with that of short stories.
One of the most obvious differences to me was how much of the setting for the story, and how much of the ‘back-story’ we pick up tremendously quickly through visual cues. For example, in ‘Yardbird’, a fantastic film which will be going to Cannes I understand, we understand implicitly that the girl in the film is being brought up solely by her father by the clothes she wears, her slightly grubby face and dirty hair. We see him drive away from the car yard, and understand her isolation, without having to be told.
‘Show don’t Tell’ is a piece of advice often repeated to budding writers, and of course in the medium of film, there is no other option. In a short story, by describing certain features, we are almost pointing them out to the reader, almost saying, ‘Make sure you notice this.’ In film there is no need to be so obvious: the cues are there if you choose to absorb them. The emphasis is not so blatant.
I think part of the speed with which we absorb the flavour of a film is due to the broader range of inputs they have available. I imagine it as something like a silk screen squeegee – it passes over the whole scene, and many different inks may come through at once, whereas story telling in words is a purely linear experience. We describe one thing happening at a time; one experience at a time. If we read fast enough or the storyteller is good enough, we can achieve the same kind of immersion, but it is not as immediate as film.
A short film can convey the feeling of a story though the visual, but also with sound effects, music, lighting and the way that the camera takes us on that journey.
This is perhaps one of the primary differences between a written story and one which is sealed in film. Stories constructed from words do allow us to colour our own world. The way that I imagine a character looking, for example, may be quite different to your interpretation, and I think this is one of the reasons we often find film translations so disappointing: they don’t live up to our imaginations. In a film, however, we all see the world in more or less the same way: the way that the filmmaker wanted us to.
There are obviously similarities in terms of how much story each medium chooses to tell, and I found this particularly evident in Lambs, from NZ filmmaker Sam Kelly. This story does not really try to follow the traditional pattern of Beginning-Middle-End, and does not try to resolve the character’s issues for the viewer. It more of a portrait snapshot of a situation for one person at one time, and in this I found it very closely echoed the short stories of David Malouf. I’ve never been game to try this myself: I suspect that like portraiture, it is hard to know when to stop, when the reader has been given enough to be satisfied.
The final comparison I’d like to chat about is the means to the end. Both media benefit from a strong editor, I think, but writing is basically a solitary task. It relies solely on one individual to tell the story as best they can.
A film-maker, however, is usually reliant on a whole host of people to assist them. Without camera people, lighting experts, costume, music and of course actors, they would not be able to tell their story at all. I think the power of acting was best brought home to me a few years ago when I saw Le batteur du Bolero. The story here, such as it is, is brilliantly and yet so subtly conveyed by the actor.
So Vive la difference, I say. Both media have strengths and weaknesses, but there are times when I am really quite envious of all the tools a filmmaker has available.
What are your thoughts on this? I’d love to hear.