School of English Drama and Film, UCD
A single chapter in Martin McLoone’s Irish Film (2000) aside, the short film form is one which has suffered a significant level of neglect within writing on Irish film. Despite the relatively high number of shorts produced in this country, and the success of films such as Six Shooter (Martin McDonagh 2004) and Give Up Your Auld Sins (Cathal Gaffney 2001) at the Oscars, there has been little exploration of the significance of the short form within Irish cinema. Indeed, this is a neglect which is replicated within the wider field of film studies. Where the short film has been considered, it is usually within a teleological narrative which sees it as merely a training space for aspiring filmmakers, a momentary stopping point on the path to feature-length fulfilment. This inevitably leads to a critical focus, when addressing short films, on the potential displayed by the filmmakers involved rather than the intrinsic qualities of the short film form. It is to a preliminary exploration of those qualities, through discussion of the Irish language short, An Ranger (P.J. Dillon 2008), that this article will now turn.
One obvious point of departure when seeking to establish the textual properties of the short film is in the relationship between the short story and the novel. This is both a productive, and potentially troubling, analogy. It is a much noted fact that many successful feature films have in fact been adapted from short stories rather than novels, which would seem to trouble any easy comparison between the novel and the feature film or indeed between literary and cinematic shorts. Nevertheless, a consideration of the formal properties of the short story, and how it functions differently to the novel, offers an insight into the inherent qualities of the short film and suggests how we might critically approach the form.
Wendell Harris describes the essence of the short story as the impulse ‘to isolate, to portray the individual person, or moment, or scene in isolation — detached from the great continuum — at once social and historical’ (cited in May 2002: 13). In its necessarily pared down approach to incident, the short story must strip away context, frequently reducing narrative to a single moment of reversal or revelation. This focus on the individual person and moment neither requires nor permits social and historical contextualisation. Although every story must have a setting, and the individual character must be situated in a meaningful relationship to his or her environment, the nature of that relationship retains a crucial element of ambiguity in the short form.
However, whilst the story environment may be sketched in a few short sentences within short fiction, film’s visual nature pushes the question of setting to the fore. The short film, like the feature, must fill the frame with visual detail and each of these details draws the film away from the sketch like quality of the short story and into a more concrete relationship with the historical world. A relevant example is ‘An Ranger’, which tells the story of a Connaught Ranger returning to his family home in the years following the Irish famine. The film opens with the returning soldier, Myles, framed in long-shot on horseback, his red uniform standing in relief against a distant mountain haze. In the foreground, the rich green Connemara scrub fills the frame. A close-up gives us a glimpse of his hardened features, staring coldly into the distance, before we return to wide-shot as Myles and his horse pick their way across a valley, a mere speck against the grey-green expanse of mountain and bog. Throughout this opening sequence, the sound of Uillean pipes can be heard playing on the soundtrack.
The film hinges on a moment of confrontation between Myles and his former neighbour, following the discovery that his family home is in ruins and the neighbour’s pigs are grazing within. This confrontation occurs within the darkened interior of the neighbour’s cottage and takes up over six minutes of the film’s ten minute running time. What narrative information we receive is revealed in the dialogue between the two. Myles’ mother died in a poorhouse and the neighbour seemingly profited from her misfortune by taking over the family land. Brief reference is made to the suffering that occurred within the famine years in Ireland, as well as to Myles’ career fighting the colonial wars of the British army. This exchange builds to a violent confrontation, and a strikingly visual narrative payoff in which the neighbour’s wife returns to find him dead, a pig’s head sitting where his own should be. However, despite the sparsity of narrative detail and historical context within the film, the images and audio track immediately situate the film in relation to a set of discourses which have been dominant within Irish visual culture. If the short story is considered in terms of lifting the individual character or moment out of history, the familiarity of the imagery deployed within this short film draws it back into a set of debates associated with visual representations of the Irish west, thereby insisting on its relationship to a very specific historical context.
This historical positioning of the short film by virtue of its reliance on pre-existing visual discourses need not necessarily be seen in a negative light. However, it does seem to defuse the power, evident in the short story, to evoke the uncanny. Charles May distinguishes between the novel and the short story in terms of their connection to the everyday, arguing that whereas the novel reaffirms our relationship to everyday reality, the short defamiliarises it. The short is concerned with the uncanny moment where our relationship to the known world shifts. It addresses ‘[those] moments when we sense the inadequacy of our categories of conceptual reality’ (May 1994: 139). It is in the uncanny image of Myles’ neighbour Ignatius, sitting in his armchair, a pig’s head atop his body, that the power of An Ranger lies. This moment most certainly does disturb our relationship to the lived world, filling an everyday image with horror. However, the chain of associations evoked by the historical setting and by the imagery within the film can work to tame that horror, to make the uncanny familiar. What the short story critics cited above are arguing is that, despite the necessity for stories to have a concrete setting, the very brevity of the short form lifts it out of the historically specific. This shifts the focus of the short story towards both the individual and the universal. By removing an explanatory context, the short speaks necessarily of individuals, but also speaks consequently to all. If we cannot situate the disturbance of everyday reality which the short story narrates, then we cannot explain it away. By situating its moment of horror, necessarily, within a recognisable visual world, An Rangerallows us to comprehend this horror within a set of discourses around landscape, violence and the nature of the Irish character which have circulated in colonial and nationalist texts. In short, the recognisable imagery throughout the film provides a context within which we can make sense of the uncanny image at its heart, thereby distancing ourselves from its visceral impact and explaining away its violent disruption of the everyday as an inevitable consequence of colonial conquest.
However, despite the inevitable materiality of cinematic visuals, I would argue that the short film retains some of the ambiguity of the short story in its relationship to historical context. As argued above, in the short film and short story alike we see a paring away of narrative excess, a narrowing of focus to the moment of narrative revelation. Thus, in An Ranger, the legacy of the Famine, the dynamics of colonialism and the centrality of land in Irish history are reduced down to and expressed within a single moment of violent confrontation between neighbours. Yet this act of compression is central to all acts of storytelling, none more so than that of the feature film, which must equally narrate its story in as concise a manner as possible. If the stripping away of extraneous detail is common to the short film and feature alike, then, the question arises as to whether there is a qualitative difference between the two forms or whether the distinction is merely a question of duration. I would argue that the two are qualitatively different, however, and that the distinction between them can be considered in terms of metaphor and metonym.
Both metaphor and metonym are rhetorical gestures for referring to a larger reality than can be expressed within discourse. However, the relationship of discourse to reality is fundamentally different in each. The metonym presents itself as being of the same order as the reality which it represents. It merely selects from reality the elements necessary to convey the wider order or truth. The job of the addressee is to fill in the gaps in order to understand the image of reality which is being conveyed. This is the rhetorical mode of the feature film, which attempts to convey its story world by judicially selecting and presenting key expositionary details and narrative moments from within it. Furthermore, although it can necessarily only tell one story amongst many, its narrative is construed as representative of a wider reality. Thus, for example, The Wind that Shakes the Barley offers us the story of a single fighting column in the Irish War of Independence. However, through its careful historical contextualisation and use of archetypal characters, it leaves us in no doubt that this column is merely a representative element of a wider historical reality. The short film, on the other hand, can only offer a singular narrative moment, and the relationship of that moment to any wider reality or truth is necessarily tentative, provisional, dependant upon interpretation and insight. It does not sample reality to make it meaningful but transforms reality into something other. It is up to the viewer to translate this vision back into meaningful terms, to interpret its relationship to the historical world. This is the operation of metaphor.
To return to An Ranger, the force of the film, as argued above, lies in the moment of dramatic revelation at the film’s climax. It is from this singularity, this moment of narrative disturbance, that any wider inferences about the film’s relationship to Irish history must be read out. Whilst the film does visually situate its narrative in relation to wider cultural discourses, we receive a minimal amount of exposition or character background. We are denied the kind of psychological or sociological explanation for the film’s violent act which we would expect from a feature film. One of the demands of the narrative feature is that ambiguity be minimised within the story world. It is expected that character behaviour will be explained at the level of narrative, that actions will be justified within the story. However, there is insufficient narrative context inAn Ranger for us to easily comprehend Myles’ violence towards his neighbour. Therefore, explanation must come at another level of discourse or else the act must remain uncanny, an unsettling disturbance of the known world. Either way, unlike the self-contained world of the feature film, the short film asks to be read in a metaphorical fashion, as speaking to a reality which is outside of itself, which its brief moment of narrative transformation can only gesture towards.
The problem of definition is a recurrent one in discussions of the short-fiction form, and the difficulty of marking clear distinctions are no less vexing when considering the relationship of the short film to the feature. However, what this short discussion hopefully raises is the necessity of considering the operations of the short film as an aesthetic form in its own right, and not merely as a training space for aspiring feature film makers. Given the sheer volume of celluloid committed to short fiction film over the hundred plus years of cinema’s existence, the inauguration of this discussion seems long overdue.
May, Charles. 1994. ‘The Nature of Knowledge in Short Fiction’ in Charles May (ed.) The New Short Story Theories. Ohio: Ohio University Press.
_______. 2002. The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice. London: Routledge.
McLoone, Martin. 2000. Irish Film: The Emergence of a Contemporary Cinema. London: BFI.