Editing in Film
What is editing? Valerie Orpen answers by looking at the various stages: "The editing process can be divided into three stages: the selection of takes and their length, the arrangement and timing of shots, scenes and sequences, and their combination with the soundtrack. Editing is primarily (though not exclusively) a connection process, that is, the joining of shots to form a whole." (Film Editing) This is Orpen differentiating editing from what is called mise en scene: the arrangement of elements (actors, objects, lighting etc) in front of the camera. These aspects are usually done on the set, during filming. Editing is done usually in an editing suite, after the film has been shot, even if this process is for various reasons complicated in digital filmmaking. Some scenes require very little editing.
We can see this in the scene in Raging Bull where Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) is quizzing his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty). Shot in one take, the film illustrates the absence of editing as the camera shows Jake coming into the room, sitting on the bed and talking to the half-asleep Vickie. He speaks to her about how handsome she seemed to think the boxer he will be fighting happens to be. Vickie doesn't know what he is talking about and just seems to want to sleep. Yet the absence of editing here is more than compensated for by its presence in the following sequence: La Motta in the ring with his handsome rival. The film very abruptly cuts from the bedroom to the boxing ring, with the hushed sounds we hear in the room, replaced by the amplified sounds at the boxing match. It is as if Scorsese offers us the editing equivalent of the uppercut, and the film follows with a flurry of cuts that play on punning possibilities. The rival ends up as cut to pieces as the sequence we are watching. Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker allow a contrast between the first scene and the second to make the violence in the ring all the more pronounced. Orpen goes as far as to say not only that Raging Bull's editing is based on 'alternation' which takes the form of moving between shots and longer segments, but that classic Hollywood cinema generally works like this. Scorsese in this sense just pushes much further than most Hollywood films in making the editing effective. American cinema, while using shots of varying length, will do so to create variety; Scorsese does so to generate a very powerful reaction through the editing. Hence our notion of the cinema uppercut. Scorsese wouldn't deny this was his intention. "One of the best things we did...was drop the sound out completely at certain moments. Silence, then suddenly the punch goes flying. Whack!" (Scorsese on Scorsese)
Alfred Hitchcock was a filmmaker often interested in experimentation, but usually within the bounds of commercial demand: he was after all frequently his own producer. Sometimes he would play up the long take: Rope was made up exclusively of extended shots, but the director's set-piece sequences were usually very reliant on editing. In the famous shower sequence from Psycho, Hitchcock's cutting can seem in some ways to resemble, and of course, precede, Scorsese's in Raging Bull. Again, the initial moments are creepy and quiet, before we move into the horror of the violence in the shower. In a book-length interview, Hitchcock, with the filmmaker Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock said of the shower sequence, "it took us seven days to shoot that scene, and there were seventy camera setups for forty-five seconds of footage...Naturally the knife never touched the body; it was all done in the montage." Here again, we see the editing doing much of the work, as the violence feels as much in the film's cutting as in the representative violence within the story.
For both Scorsese and Hitchcock editing was important, but it wasn't all important. For a number of Soviet filmmakers of the twenties, editing was much more significant than mise en scene, evident in the experiments known as the Kuleshov effect, and the brilliant work also of Sergei Eisenstein. The Kuleshov effect was named after the filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, who worked out that editing can create a very specific sense of meaning. As David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson say in Film Art: An Introduction, "Kuleshov conducted informal experiments by assembling shots of separate dramatic elements. The most famous of these experiments involved cutting neutral shots of an actor's face with other shots (variously reported as shots of soup, nature scenes, a dead woman, and a baby). The reported result was that the audience immediately assumed that the actor's expression changed and that the actor was reacting to things present in the same space as himself." This 'proved' that it was editing rather than mise en scene which was vital to cinema, and nobody more than Eisenstein theorised this position and exemplified it in film. In Film Form he says, "the shot is by no means an element of montage. The shot is a montage cell. Just as cells in their division form a phenomenon of another order, the organism or embryo, so, on the other side of the dialectical leap from the shot, there is montage." In Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October we see many of his ideas in evidence, but his most influential film has undeniably been Potemkin, and most especially the Odessa Steps sequence. Here he practices what he preaches with great skill and authority. As we witness the people being crushed underfoot by the military doing the bourgeois' bidding after a mutiny on the titular battleship, so Eisenstein refuses to establish the screen space with any clear sense of logistical consistency. Instead what interests him is putting the shots together to generate maximum terror, while creating an ideological sense of injustice on the part of the viewer.
While in a marvellous film of logistical precision, The French Connection, director William Friedkin makes clear to us at all times where we are, Eisenstein plays up the confusion by making the shots very brief, and matching them more on the basis of rhythm than sense. Friedkin might have said in an interview that he cut the key chase sequence to Santana's 'Black Magic Woman', "I just cut it to that tempo," but watching the scene, where for most of the sequence no music of any kind is used, we sense its logistical precision rather than its rhythmic intensity. It is a great example of parallel montage, of cross-cutting between different spaces on the same temporal plane. This is often where the car chase comes into its own, as we see in Bullitt, To Live and Die in LA, The Bourne Identity. If The French Connection remains the most impressive it rests on the variables at work. The scene takes place in a hectic New York, with a borrowed car driven by someone who is not naturally an impressive driver. The chase takes place on foot, car and train, and the film constantly gives us manifold points of view and perspectives while always keeping us logistically focused.
If parallel montage is especially good at crosscutting between events that are closely connected (as in a chase sequence), filmmakers sometimes use if for thematic heft. Both Magnolia and Requiem for a Dream conclude on cross-cutting sequences showing the films' main characters. In Magnolia, the film cuts from one character to the next all isolated but singing along to Aimee Mann's 'Save Me'. In Requiem for a Dream, the film ends on a crosscut between the leading characters suffering appallingly, all addicted. Here the directors very much achieve their effect through editing and for much of cinema history the question what should have priority (editing or mise-en-scene) has been debated by theorists, even over the same film. While many films are undeniably focused on one or the other, most films combine both, as we have noted in Raging Bull. Yet sometimes a filmmaker relies on so many cuts that the mise-en-scene dissolves into a spatial chaos, as in Carmelo Bene's Salome, creates very complex logistics as in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, makes the narrative deliberately difficult to work out immediately, as in Nic Roeg's Bad Timing, or even more so, Alain Resnais' work, especially Last Year at Marienbad, but also J'taime J'taime and La guerre est finie. At the other extreme we have films by Miklos Jancso, that sometimes have little more than a dozen takes over the course of the film. As Peter Hames says in Kino Eye, "notoriously, Confrontation contains only 31 shots, Red Psalm 28 shots, and My Love, Elektra only 12. The changes of viewpoint normally achieved through conventional editing can, of course, be approached by the panning, tracking, craning, and zooming characteristic of Jancs. But Jancs's approach constructs new levels of ambiguity."
An example of a film that combines both approaches famously well is Citizen Kane. Andre Bazin reckoned Welles was an exemplar of realism and the longer take, but others could just as easily claim a great montage director at work. After all, the 'March of Time' sequence is based on editing, and the film's structure uses flashback to orient us in the material as a journalist investigates what the word Rosebud meant to the dead tycoon Charles Foster Kane.
As a rule, filmmakers use editing to generate tension, surprise, shock and various other forms of involvement. But occasionally directors want to generate distance: they want to make us very aware that what we are watching is constructed, and that we cannot take the image for granted. In Jean-Luc Godard's first film, Breathless, he innovated with jump cuts - shots that seemed to remove key transitional material, for example, and leaves us feeling quite literally that we have blinked and missed something. Also, the long take and the fast cut don't at all work in Godard's films as Orpen suggests they do in classic Hollywood. There can be lengthy sequences of the characters lying in bed, as in Breathless, and then brief shots of central character Michel (Jean Paul Belmondo) ordering breakfast. If most filmmakers orient us in the scene, Godard sets out to disorientate us. As he would say, quoted in Everything is Cinema: "I need a certain freedom. I get it by sowing a certain confusion. By playing around with familiar ways." Yet whether it is Scorsese, Hitchcock, Eisenstein, Friedkin or Godard, they all show us the importance of editing in film.
© Tony McKibbin