Film studies theorists David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in Film Art have differentiated between four main elements of editing: the spatial, the temporal, the rhythmic and the graphic. What we want to explore here are these elements, and especially in relation to key formal devices used in film, including parallel montage, continuity editing, the reaction shot, the jump cut, shot/counter-shot, and what has come to be known as the Kuleshov effect.
But first let us explain a little bit about each of the four major elements. Two are probably more or less self-evident: the spatial relates to how films are edited in relation to space, the temporal to how films are edited in relation to time. The rhythmic element is the way the shots are edited together to create or counter a smooth rhythm, and the graphic how the images match - or mismatch - visually from cut to cut.
If we think of the spatial first, what films come to mind as great examples of spatial editing? Here are three: Bullit, Diva and The French Connection. What they all have in common are chase sequences, and when we often say they are films with great chase scenes in them, we are talking not least about the way they are spatially edited. If The French Connection for many holds up as the greatest chase in cinema, it lies in the complexity of the scene logistically, and in the clarity of its execution. It uses brilliantly what is called parallel montage (also known as cross-cutting) to keep the viewer aware of the variables in the scene. Whether it is cop Popeye Doyle driving furiously and looking up at the train above on which the sniper he is trying to catch is on, or showing the point of view of the buffer as the train crashes into it, the film constantly puts us in the most privileged position to understand exactly what is at stake in the scene. Spatial editing is also central to less complex cinematic staging. The general cinema vocabulary of establishing shot, medium shot and close up is vital in classic Hollywood even when a filmmaker plays with the convention. In Casablanca, for example, we know where Rick and Ilsa are in Paris because the director establishes the location through the shadow of the window sign on the floor, and then in the same shot shows Rick standing by the bar. Usually the shot would be from outside the bar, be followed by an interior shot, and then by the close up.
The importance in each instance, in The French Connection and Casablanca, is to make absolutely clear the spatial organization of the scene. Often the difference between a good and great mainstream filmmaker is how fresh he can make this spatial organization while still keeping the viewer engaged.
But what about time in relation to editing? Often this falls under the heading of narrative continuity: in how a filmmaker arranges the story in time for maximum comprehension. Sometimes this means telling a story as linear progression, but many films bring out the complexity of time through the complexity of the editing. Citizen Kane, Raging Bull, Bad Timing, L'Appartement, The Usual Suspects and many a film noir draw out the convolutions of character or situation by playing with the time schema. Raging Bull for example starts with Jake as an aging man, making a living telling jokes and doing recitals in the club he owns in 1964, before the film cuts to La Motta in the ring in 1941. The film viewer isn't cued for linear progression, where we would generally assume that the following scene is chronologically going to take place after the previous scene, but instead to what happened many years before. There are many ways a filmmaker takes us into another time zone while retaining narrative coherence and Raging Bull does so here quite straightforwardly: a title tells us it is 1964; another that now we are in 1941. The more radical the filmmaker, the more this shift between time zones will be dissolved. In Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist for example it is only when we are quite far into the scene itself we can say exactly when it is taking place - whether it is a flashback or a move forward in time. In one of the most radical works in film, Last Year at Marienbad, we cannot even say exactly where we are in time: is it last year or this year at Marienbad? The sort of concrete temporal information that great American films like Raging Bull and Citizen Kane provide is dissolved, and the viewer works especially hard to locate themselves in the story's continuity. Martin Auty notes in an article called 'Time Zones', published in Movies of the Sixties, "this complex juggling of different tenses - movements elsewhere in time, rather than specifically backwards or forwards - is what makes Last Year at Marienbad, for instance such a remarkable and influential film."
The spatial and the temporal are the most important elements of the four we proposed, but the rhythmic is not insignificant. Indeed, in the great Soviet montage filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's work, rhythm is in some scenes more important than time and space. In the famous Odessa steps sequence from The Battleship Potemkin, observers have noticed how the film stretches time as the spatial gives way the rhythmic. Clearly there is a narrative to be extracted in this scene where the Cossacks mow down men, woman and children, but the priority resides not in the logistics of the scene, as in The French Connection, but the rhythm of it as the film convinces us of the awfulness of the Russian government through the rhythmic, more than the spatially dramatic. Logistically it would only take a couple of minutes to walk down the steps; in Eisenstein's film it takes far longer.
This leaves us with the graphic, maybe the least important of the four elements, but we only need to watch a film where it deliberately counters graphic matching, as it moves from darkness to light and our eyes are forced to blink, to know how important matching visually one shot to the next can be. Often, though, filmmakers seem to use graphic matching quite pragmatically. making shots work in conjunction visually, but it seems unimportant next to the necessity of having shots match spatially and temporally. Bordwell does show that in some of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu's work graphic matches cross over from one shot to the next, but in the body of the director's work this is still a rare occurrence. The graphic match is often a stylistic flourish or a thematic touch. Nic Roeg's use of red from one shot to the next in Don't Look Now, for example, or the famous graphic match in 20001 where the bone turns into a spaceship.
At the beginning of these brief notes I also mentioned several other formal elements we haven't yet covered. A couple of them are very conventional; others much less so. Indeed, the reaction shot and the shot-counter-shot are standard devices some of the more interesting filmmakers try to avoid. Jean Luc Godard for example makes explicit the hoariness of the former in Bande a part and eschews the latter in Le Mepris. So often in films we see the reaction shot serving as a cue for the audience's response to the action: the awed character responding to a meteorite coming towards earth; the damsel watching as two men fight over her. It is the latter Godard mocks in a scene from Bande a part as Anna Karina exaggerates her emotions to point up the superfluity of the shot. In Le Mepris, during an argument between Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot, instead of cutting from one character speaking and then back again to the other person, Godard slowly pans from one person to the other, not only questioning the conventional device, but also indicating the long drawn out frustration of the relationship: the slow pan from one person to the other indicative of the contempt at work in the couple.
But Godard's biggest break with convention came with his very film debut, A bout de souffle. Generally, before Godard came along, to cut from one shot to another the shots had to match. If you showed a character going up the stairs, you needed to show the transition shots that would create a smooth sense of time and space. If a character was talking to his girlfriend in the car, you would have to show the cut back to the boyfriend, you couldn't show the girl talking at one moment and then in the next shot looking pensive. By removing the cut to the boyfriend - what is called the cutaway - it looks as though a character has jumped in space; hence the jump cut.
Godard was influenced by Soviet montage, and when writing for the same magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, as the great Andre Bazin, whom we talked about last week, he argued for the importance of editing against Bazin's respect for the longer take. Godard believed in the freedom of the form, and perhaps nobody more than Lev Kuleshov proposed how much freedom a filmmaker could have through editing together images. In the twenties, alongside Eisenstein, V.I. Pudovkin and others, Soviet filmmakers played up the importance of editing. Kuleshov, in a series of experiments, showed that by cutting in neutral shots of an actor's face with different images that the actor seemed to be reacting to, so the audience would insist that the actor's face changed in relation to each thing that was in the other shot, and that also these things (soup, a dead woman, a baby etc) were in the same space as the actor, no matter if the counter shot was the White House or the Eiffel tower. For some filmmakers this is the freedom of cinema; for others its aesthetic laziness. Andrei Tarkovsky in Sculpting in Time proposed in relation to such perceived manipulation that "the construction of the image becomes an end in itself, and the author proceeds to make a total onslaught on the audience, imposing upon them his own attitude to what is happening." Hence he was more sympathetic to the long take than the manipulatively edited. However, the most important question we want to ask today though is what the editing serves, not especially whether it is right or wrong to use it over the longer take.
© Tony McKibbin