everybody knows it: editors cut the film. that image of course goes all the way back to a time when film had to be cut physically. although it wasn’t the only labor involved (there was the scraping of the emulsion, the layering of the glue, the bonding of the two pieces of celluloid, etc.), the sound of cutting the film on a block had a dramatic finality that the other labors simply didn’t have. one of the late splicing machines was even called a guillotine! so the image of a “cutter” at work stuck. yet, if we think about it, the moment when one cuts the film only exteriorizes what took place just before, that is to say, the cogitation during which the editor prefigures in his/her head the future linkage. this said, even the job of selecting the shots and finessing their transition is not as pivotal as it appears at first. it is in fact not unlike what copy editors do when they go over spelling and grammar in a book set for publication. they help smooth the wording, they suggest alternatives when faced with confusing phraseology. likewise, all movie editors are good at “cutting”. the challenge arises when a scene or, more globally, the film as it was imagined by the filmmaker, simply does not work. at that point we are no longer talking about tactical skills but strategic decision making. this requires a very different kind of mind. the typical remedy—adding a voice-over narration or the dialogue track being replaced by a song or classical music —rarely works. one now desperately needs the equivalent of a max perkins in the editing room, someone who is able to re-configure how to fit the pieces together. but you cannot count on the magic to work as a matter of course: not even walter murch could salvage youth without youth.
to unearth a film that works is what editing is all about.
traditional film editing was hampered by the materiality of the celluloid. for one thing, the cutter had to stop the editing machine and take the film away to a side table in order to perform the required grafting onto another scene picked up from an adjacent bin. afterwards, it was back to the moviola to evaluate the impact of the cut. the celluloid too created impediments to the process. cutting frames off a shot was no problem but adding some of them back, after the fact, was problematic for a frame had been lost in the process and something now needed to be done to keep the sound in sync. stacking up splices close to one another also risked tearing the film apart when running it through the moviola. as a result, one was cautious about going too far and then being obliged to reverse course.
these physical roadblocks nevertheless yielded some unintended benefits. first, because the editing was a hands-on process, one literally felt the film, one was close to it, one became married to its content. second, one’s attention during the proceeding was fully taken up by the job at hand. no grand scheme here, one issue at a time only. third, the quirks connected to the celluloid often forced the cutter to come up with unusually creative solutions. this in turn made the editing more rugged, more idiosyncratic. fourth, the splicing impacted only the space between frames. the images themselves were not defaced or harmed in any way. they kept their integrity. that is to say, the film was made to look fit but its organics (the scene, the live event) survived whole. in more ways than one then, the procedure mirrored the approach used by sculptors or painters when they implement an idea on the marble or the canvas, then take a step back to assess the outcome. working as a traditional craftsmen, film editors chiseled the film one concrete cut at a time.
for all the indisputable advantages of digital editing over the now-antiquated film process, some concerns are nevertheless worth mentioning. for instance, once an assistant has organized, labeled and synchronized the footage, every useful bit of the movie can be randomly accessed either in a list or as thumbnails in a grand gallery. the shots hang there as standing reserve, ready to serve at whim (heidegger). sure enough, this conspicuousness and accessibility seduce the editor into assembling multiple versions of cuts and scenes. this development in turn alters the editing process in its very core for the focus has shifted from the implementation of a single idea onto the fabric of the film to the selection of a particular rendition among a potentially infinite number of alternatives. instead of envisioning in one’s head the best way to accommodate two shots, the editor is now confronting a number of very concrete, in-your-face options. one is therefore more likely to become engrossed in global perspectives, leaving behind the original impetus that motivated one’s engagement with the scene in the first place. this is not unlike being outraged by, say, the pay gap between the executives in corporations and their workers but, when faced with political parties with altogether different programs, one eventually votes for one of them for reasons unrelated to one’s initial commitment. a second noteworthy outcome is that the plethora of possibilities (not forgetting, once again, the absence of resistance from the medium) induces the editor to dance around with the shots. needed or not, fast cutting has become the norm simply because it can be done effortlessly.
beyond this, what is most striking about the editing software is that, on the computer screen, the images come in almost as an afterthought. the menus occupy most of the space; they are what matters. cutting and pasting clips into the timeline (which is the equivalent of what film editors used to do) is now only one the myriad convenient commands available to cutters. perceived as mere raw material, the images are thus likely to be significantly enhanced before they are judged acceptable for public viewing. this is feasible because the umbilical cord tying them to the live event captured by the camera has been severed (baudrillard). in other words, the delinking of the images from any physical support simultaneously uncoupled them from the vitals that gave them birth. the images are now free-floating, without a past or a fixed identity. their protean nature offers no objection to being given a different look or even a new personality. they have become mere commodities one can exploit at will. today’s editors are no longer just cutters. they go about their work as savage capitalists who cannot leave anything fallow. working at arms’ length from the images, they mine their covert resources, they genetically modify their innards. the visual frenzy involved in the process is nothing short of hallucinatory.
editing was quickly recognized as the secret weapon of the new medium. whereas a spectator in a theatre was stuck looking at the production from exactly the same position throughout a play, cutting allowed the film viewer ceaseless new angles on the action. this said, the contrast with theater, if appropriate, missed the more crucial comparison. for, in life too, through thick and thin, we remain stuck with a single perspective. so it is the disconnect from life, the novel ability to occupy rapidly multiple physical locations that secured the future of the movies. distances don’t matter either: as opposed to life where i have to go through the living room to get to the kitchen or run across the street to catch a bus, i’m transported from here to there instantly when watching a movie. these thoroughly inhuman adventures are without doubt the forbidden fruits we look forward to each time we plan on going to the cinema.
the issue of continuity immediately raised its ugly head. if i am cutting from a full shot of a couple in a room to a close-up of the male actor, has time gone by between the two shots? how much time? the exact time it would have taken for a beholder to go from one position to the next? if we pretend that no time at all has passed between the shots, the actor better be in the same position. from this point on, someone was assigned the business of keeping track of continuity: was the glass in her left hand, which fingers were holding it, how much liquid was in it, etc.? the views may be distinct but the particulars were set in stone.
when cutting to an entirely new scene ,the time factor is even more critical. how do i know how much time, if any, has elapsed between the separate events: ten minutes, half a day, several weeks? or should i assume instead that both actions are happening at exactly the same time? griffith of course nailed that technique down in the lonely villa when he crosscut from a woman and her daughters besieged by burglars in their house to the husband driving back to the rescue. his was a simple but effective solution to. the first time we cut to the husband, we find him in a hotel making a call to his wife. from that point on, each time we cut between the two, we know for sure that, although miles apart, the two events are simultaneous.
continuity involves more than merely cutting between diverse scenes. there is a centripetal force at work in the process. regardless of how far characters travel, they (we as well) are inexorably brought back to the main body of action. although only specific actions and spaces are involved, the connotation is even broader: whatever it is i am discovering in the world will be in cahoots with what i already know of it.
in imitation of their leaders who wanted a complete political break with the past, soviet filmmakers rejected conventional editing based on continuity and a smooth transition from shot to shot. they were naturally attracted to more rugged, bumpier links to build up their scenes. to disassociate themselves from bourgeois cinema, they experimented with montage.
what is the main difference between standard editing and soviet montage? hollywood from the beginning adopted what could be called a photographic approach to filmmaking. practically speaking, this means that everything needed for the scene must be on deck and unified in an ensemble before one can proceed with the shooting. let us compare for example an identical action in an american and a soviet film. revolution opens with a wide view of the statue of the british king on his horse being toppled by a crowd of american patriots. we see it all: the large statue on its pedestal and the thick cords needed to pull it down, all the actors and extras in costumes, the fake cobblestones on the ground and the historically correct façades in the background.
soviet montage by contrast owes more to linguistics than photography. when speaking or writing indeed, the words used in a sentence do not have to contain within themselves the meaning that emerges from the phrase once it is complete. in a similar way, one can construct a film sequence using images shot in various situations and circumstances. in eisenstein’s october, we find once again a statue being toppled by a crowd but this time the tyrant on his horse is the czar of russia and the rebels are the bolsheviks. the shots in the scene include some revolutionaries cording the statue, others storming a palace, soldiers and peasants cheering the action. in contrast to revolution however, we never access an all-inclusive view of the scenery. this is because the various bits were shot in different places and times. the shots of the soldiers and the peasants in particular look very much like stock footage. it matters not that in the original situation the soldiers were cheering, say, the arrival of the canteen and the peasants the new year, a new meaning is foisted on them (and us) by juxtaposing them to the toppling of the statue. so whereas editing picks bits in a pre-unified whole, montage appropriates various fragments, loading them with fresh significance once they become part of the brand-new ensemble.
conventional thinking has it that sound made soviet montage unworkable. i disagree. it is high time we revisit this royal road to filmmaking. indeed, we continue to be bogged down by the weight and cost of having to gather physically in one place all the constituents of a scene before shooting. why do so when we can easily mix in material shot elsewhere at a more convenient time as well as bootleg already existing images? isn’t it time also we avail ourselves of all the compositing resources made possible by the digital revolution?
if montage revolutionized the filmmaking process, it didn’t change standard storytelling insofar as the audience was concerned. dialectical montage however pushes the technique to the limit. what is it that makes it so potent? in full contrast to standard editing which assumes a tranquil continuation between the parts being assembled, the connections created by dialectical montage lead viewers to outcomes they would not have imagined based on the initial shot of the series. in october’s god sequence for instance, we cut from familiar symbols of the divinity to representations that are less familiar, ending up with figures that would definitely be called pagan by a western eye. in this way the soviet director was able to demystify religion as another form of idolatry. here, in opposition to continuity editing, each succeeding image takes us farther and farther afield and the farther we go the more things are different. an even more hegelian example of dialectical editing can be found in the visual presentation warren beatty is made to watch in the parallax view. in the show, archetypal representations (flag, country, father, mother, etc.) are first discovered in their usual benign association before revealing they could also stand for something a lot less appealing.
a further backlash against both continuity and conventional editing took place in france in the late fifties. truffaut for one shocked critics when he decided not to use the reverse shot of the social worker interrogating the young boy in the 400 blows. at the end of the same film, he further challenged efficient, business-like editing by doggedly staying with the boy running away from the institution in long takes rather than condensing the run in four of five brief shots. as for godard, he broke all rules when he cut his protagonists from one spot to another in the same location without any change in lens or camera position. undoubtedly, the technique was a slap in the face of the french cinema establishment known for its conservatism—the long apprenticeship before one could become a director, the insistence on technical excellence, the deference to tradition, etc.—all practices which would have prevented an iconoclast like godard from ever making films. there was more to his endeavor though than mere provocation. jump cutting demonstrated that continuity inherently slows things down. not unlike nietzsche’s understanding of history, continuity in film was shown to be a drag on the ability of the protagonists (and the filmmaker) to take wing. seen for decades as a mistake, jump cutting propelled the narrative forward like nothing since griffith’s last minute rescue.
editing has trained us to expect a link of some sort between successive shots. this is very different from life where innumerable unconnected events catch our attention thus keeping us from following a single theme for very long. only after the fact can one go back and look for causes capable of explaining what we just witnessed. in a movie however, what is extraneous to the main action has been neatly excised. a connection between successive events can thus be taken for granted from the get go. to put it simply, we understand the flow of images as a thought process. we thus end up tagging along a path deliberately laid out for us by the film’s director. eisenstein was all for it, bazin was horrified.
should everything be explained in a film? is the cause and effect relationship essential to storytelling? can a looser connection be good enough to keep audiences interested? done well, an unsolved mystery stays with us a lot longer than one which got cleared up. mulholland drive is the classic example. but smaller films like sleeping beauty are interesting because of what remains unexplained in them.
in neighboring sounds, kleber mendonça filho cuts at times just before what most people would imagine to be the main action. we may guess what that action consists of but we do not know for sure. in this way, the film becomes an open work (umberto eco). instead of a perfectly mappable series of events, the narrative leaves some plot points unresolved. one could even go further and expand the idea of jump cutting to the transition between scenes, in effect cutting away from an action before its natural conclusion and joining a second one already in progress.
last but not least, claire denis is known for her ellipses. far from hurting her films, they set them apart, epitomizing her unique narrative approach.
through practice, cutters have learned to calibrate the exact amount of time each image should remain on the screen in order to maximize the spectators’ response to the scene. as the editing rushes us effortlessly forward, a beat takes over. that rhythm oftentimes becomes synonymous with our experience of the scene. the whirling of images around can however become an end in itself. this is happening quite often nowadays because the commotion works so effectively on viewers. in response to a bravura sequence, we become sensorially agitated. the heartbeat, breathing, blinking pattern, etc., are altered. moreover this visceral reaction takes place even when we have little interest for the story or the characters. i may not give a damn about bruce willis trying to save the planet but my eye brain system is working overtime in response to the relentless motion on the screen and the machine gun firing of shots that michael bay throws at me.
it has been said that a film is made three times, once preparing for it, again in production, and finally in post. how often indeed does one realize when editing a film that a scene just doesn’t work as expected, that it stops the flow of the sequence and should be deleted entirely, or that one actor should be favored at the expense of another, etc.? how could this be? prior to seeing all the images in a scene next to one another, one doesn’t yet have to fight what william morris called the resistance of the material, in this case, the reality of the action on the screen. as soon as one lines up a series of pictures then, they don’t lie still. they insist on their integrity. and, regardless of all efforts, at times they simply refuse to combine nicely.
some well-honed editing techniques may no longer be as effective as they once were. for instance, when viewers know what the protagonist is going to do or where he/she is going, all the intermediary shots between departure and arrival are likely to be perceived as mere fillers. they no longer contribute anything to the suspense. this issue is of particular importance in hollywood films which make the most of the race leading to the finish line. but now it is the “let’s go” that slows down the action. another technique, griffith’s signature crosscutting, is also showing its age. graphic match cuts and even cutting on action feel painful at times.
there have been simply too many applications of these procedures for anyone to still find them compelling. viewers are now ahead of the storyteller. they no longer want to cut to the chase, they now want to cut out the chase. in the not too distant future, editors will have to get rid of all this antiquarian baggage. the challenge will be to find other ways to maintain interest in the film.
editors can only work with the footage they have been given. most times, they use it as intended. in the war is over however, there are bits that take us further afield. although some material can be identified as remembrances belonging to the protagonist, others are more like his reveries. it is almost as if we were accessing, not just the character’s explicit thoughts, but also those located at the periphery of his consciousness. although unusual, this is nevertheless still something plotted from the start by the director.
in the same film however, there is a brief moment when a woman walking fast is matched cut to another woman walking at the same pace, and then to a third one, etc. in this instance it is impossible to construe the brief sequence as originating from the character or the director. it looks rather as if the editor got bored following the narrative and decided to have fun assembling various images that just happened to cut well together. the procedure is not unlike “scratching” by disc jockeys. what else can we think of that hasn’t been done yet?