(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2005)
I wish I knew more about what film editors do. I have a basic sense of what the job involves, and I’ve read enough stories of potential disasters rescued in the editing suite to broadly understand its centrality to the filmmaking process. Some of these stories suggest that once in a while, the editor might be a truer author of a film than its credited director. In others though, it seems that the editor plays more of a technical support role. This may be no more than the variation you see in any walk of life – in my own workplace, for example, some managers use their administrative assistants for everything under the sun, while others are more self-sufficient and barely need them at all. But for me at least, cinema makes such things inherently more mysterious and beguiling.
This year’s Oscar for editing went to Thelma Schoonmaker for The Aviator. The other nominees were Ray, Million Dollar Baby, Finding Neverland and Collateral. Four of those five were also nominated for best film, suggesting that high-quality editing is somehow undistinguishable from high-quality work overall (the one substitution, Collateral for Sideways, puts a high-functioning machine, something that feels clearly “assembled,” over a quieter, more invisibly flowing work). In case this seems like a fluke, last year was a three out of five correlation. But if the best film is the work that best reflects the “overall” achievement of its many makers, this suggests that good editing is merely a proxy for good overall achievement. On the other hand, the five initial nominees are selected by the Academy’s editors’ branch, and they (if anyone can) should be able to figure out strong individual work when they see it. Or are the nominations influenced by individual popularity, affability, and other extraneous factors?
When Schoonmaker accepted her award, she thanked the film’s director Martin Scorsese and said he made her work easy because “You think like an editor when you shoot.” Meaning, I think, that Scorsese doesn’t just shoot every angle that occurs to him and dump endless cans of film on her desk with no idea of how they should be assembled – on the set, he has a sense in his head of how the finished creation will look. Presumably, with his legendary efficiency, Clint Eastwood is much the same. To us outsiders it might seem weird that anyone would do it any differently, that this degree of economy and coordination wouldn’t be a minimum requirement for the job. But if it were, then Scorsese wouldn’t stand out for it. John Ford was famous for doing the same thing, and I’ve seen that described as his way of thwarting the studios’ meddling tendencies. Alfred Hitchcock was so famously confident about how sequences would translate to the screen that he dirccted the odd scene from the back of his car. Other directors grab lots of “coverage” from multiple angles, figuring that they’ll find the scene in the editing room. I’m sure that both these approaches may at times yield either masterpieces or duds, but the Ford/Scorsese approach seems (at least superficially) to speak of greater command.
Some schools of film theory see editing as an intrusion that prevents film from attaining its potential as a realistic medium. This way of thinking places its greatest value on the single shot, and the use of camera movement and focus to create complexity of relationships and meaning within the frame. Andre Bazin noted that editing creates "a meaning not objectively present in the images but derived purely from their juxtaposition”; he took the opinion that the film image should be evaluated "according not to what it adds to reality but to what it reveals of it." In Bazin’s case this view bore an ideological spirituality, rooted in the French tradition of Personalism and its emphasis on spiritual fulfillment and an integrated harmonious universe.
Even now I find long takes incredibly exciting, although if anything, it works against the ideology I described - by drawing attention to its coordinated prowess, it can actually seem more manipulative of reality than a “conventionally” edited sequence. I expect this only illustrates the fallacy of thinking about film as a realistic medium in the first place. Of course, it looks realistic – those are real people up there, caught in actions that they once really carried out. But with the choice to film one person rather than another, to choose one angle rather than another, aesthetic subjectivity enters, and if we think it is ever vanquished, I think that merely reflects the power of certain conventions. Bazin acknowledged this in other writings, stating "realism in art can only be achieved in one way - through artifice."
Conventional notions of great editing tend to emphasize the sweat factor. Collateral and City of God are both logistical challenges, with numerous complex set pieces and narrative balls kept up in the air. The editing Oscar often goes to a film like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars, reflecting a view that editing something sprawling and fast-moving must be much harder than editing something small and deliberate. And yet this seems to undervalue the small epiphanies that come from intimacies. Needless to say, no Jean-Luc Godard film or other piece of radical montage has ever been nominated for the editing Oscar, and yet these may be (almost self-evidently) more imaginative and challenging uses of the medium’s building blocks than even a well-made drama. I suppose the Academy would say that the Godard style of editing, privileging meaning and stimulation over tidiness and unobtrusive flow, is simply a different kind of ball game.
And yet there’s something almost paradigmatically thrilling about the idea of creating meaning and resonance out of pieces of film bearing no inherent relationship to one another. There’s no doubt that the moment in 2001: a Space Odyssey, when the film cuts from the primitive man’s bone thrown into the air, to a spaceship thousands of years later, is Kubrick’s conception rather than his editor’s, and it can be regarded as pretentious or strenuous. But it sums up cinema’s astonishing reach.
Ultimately though, the difference between good and bad editing though may come down to much less than that. In his terrifically entertaining memoir When the Shooting Stops...the Cutting Begins, editor Ralph Rosenblum describes how the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen sneezes on the cocaine attracted a much greater laugh than anyone expected, so that in preview screenings the opening dialogue from the next scene was drowned out by laughter. To solve that problem, the editor added in more and more static reaction time at the end of the cocaine scene. It’s about fixing a problem, but inextricably bound to the film’s aesthetic impact. Just a few frames may make the difference between poignancy and mawkishness; comic elegance and something we recoil from for being shoved in our faces; revelation and obviousness. When this is well executed we don’t even notice, and the accomplished editor would surely be proud of that.