UNDERSTANDING MOVIES, 12/e 2011
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The foundation of film art is editing. V. I. PUDOVKIN, FILMMAKER AND FILM CRITIC
ContinuityIn the earliest years of cinema, the late 1890s, movieswere brief, consisting of short events photographed inlong shots in a single take. The duration of the shot andthe event were equal. Soon, filmmakers began to tell sto-riessimple ones, its true, but requiring more than a sin-gle shot. Scholars have traced the development ofnarrative to filmmakers in France, Britain, and the UnitedStates.
By the early twentieth century, filmmakers hadalready devised a functional style of editing we now call
cutting to continuity. This type of cutting is a techniqueused in most fiction films even today, if only for exposition scenes. Essentially, this styleof editing is a kind of shorthand, consisting of time-honored conventions. Continuity cut-ting tries to preserve the fluidity of an event without literally showing all of it.
For example, a continuous shot of a woman leaving work and going home mighttake forty-five minutes. Cutting to continuity condenses the action into a few brief shots,each of which leads by association to the next: (1) She enters a corridor as she closes thedoor to her office. (2) She leaves the office building. (3) She enters and starts her car. (4) She drives her car along a highway. (5) Her car turns into her driveway at home. Theentire forty-five-minute action might take ten seconds of screen time, yet nothing essen-tial is left out. Its an unobtrusive condensation.
To keep the action logical and continuous, there must be no confusing breaks in anedited sequence of this sort. Often, all the movement is carried out in the same directionon the screen to avoid confusion. For example, if the woman moves from right to left inone shot and her movements are from left to right in the other shots, we might think thatshe is returning to her office. Causeeffect relationships must be clearly set forth. If thewoman slams on her brakes, the director is generally obliged to offer us a shot of whatprompted the driver to stop so suddenly.
132 U N D E R S TA N D I N G M O V I E S
So far, weve been concerned with cinematic commu-nication as it relates to the single shot, the basic unit ofconstruction in movies. Except for traveling shots andlengthy takes, however, shots in film tend to acquiremeaning when they are juxtaposed with other shots andstructured into an edited sequence. Physically, editing issimply joining one strip of film (shot) with another. Onthe most mechanical level, editing eliminates unnecessarytime and space. Through the association of ideas, editingconnects one shot with another, one scene with another,and so on. Simple as this may now seem, the conventionof editing represents what critic Terry Ramsaye referredto as the syntax of cinema, its grammatical language.Like linguistic syntax, the syntax of editing must belearned. We dont possess it innately.
OVERVIEWReal time versus reel time: the prob-lem of continuity. Cutting to continu-ity: condensing unobtrusively. D. W. Griffith and the development ofa universal cutting style. The invisiblemanipulation of classical cutting:editing for emphasis and nuance.The problem of time. Subjectiveediting: thematic montage and theSoviet school. Pudovkin andEisenstein: two early masters ofthematic cutting. The famous OdessaSteps sequence of Potemkin. Thecountertradition: the realism ofAndr Bazin. How editing lies. Whennot to cut and why. Real time andspace and how to preserve them.The realist arsenal: sound, deepfocus, sequence shots, widescreen.Alfred Hitchcock, supreme master ofediting: storyboard sequence fromNorth by Northwest. The digitalrevolution in editing.
41b Zodiac (U.S.A., 2007),with Robert Downey Jr. andJake Gyllenhaal, directed byDavid Fincher. (Warner Bros.)
41c Mission: Impossible (U.S.A.,2006), with Tom Cruise and MichelleMonaghan, directed by J.J. Abrams.(Paramount Pictures)
People often refer to a film as slow orfast-moving. Generally, the pace of amovie is determined by the subject mattera thriller is likely to be edited at a faster pacethan a subtle psychological studybutsometimes the editing pace is determined bya directors temperament. For example, bothZodiac and Mission Impossible III arethrillers, but Finchers historically based casestudy of a San Francisco serial killer and thepeople trying to catch him moves at a slow,deliberate pace, like most of Finchers otherworks (Alien3, The Fight Club, The CuriousCase of Benjamin Button). On the other hand,Mission Impossible III, like many action films,moves at an almost frantic pace. Although the averageHollywood film contains about 1,000 shots, actionthrillers tend to average over 2,000. A typical filmsshots average about 58 seconds in length; but theshots of thrillers average about 24 seconds. Many di-rectors believe that contemporary audiencesdebauched by video games, TV remote controls, and asteady diet of action filmswont sit still for a moviethat doesnt race to an explosive climax of split-secondshots.
41a The Deer Hunter (U.S.A.,1978), directed by Michael Cimino.
Editing is an art as well as a craft. Like all art, it oftendefies mechanical formulations, taking on a life of itsown. For example, when sneak preview audienceswere asked for their reactions to this three-hourmovie, most viewers responded enthusiastically butfelt that the hour-long wedding sequence of theopening could have been cut down. In terms of itsplot, nothing much happens in this sequence. Itspurpose is primarily lyricala loving celebration ofthe social rituals that bind the community together.The story content of the sequence could becondensed to a few minutes of screen timewhichis exactly what its makers did. When the shortenedversion was shown to audiences, reactions were
negative. Cimino and his editor, Peter Zinner, restored the cut footage. The long wedding sequence is necessary not for itsstory content so much as for its experiential value. It provides the movie with a sense of balance: The community solidarityof the sequence is what the characters fight for in the subsequent battle footage of the film. (Universal Pictures)
42 The Makioka Sisters (Japan, 1985), directed by KonIchikawa.
How a scene is edited can be very subjective, depending on whos doing the cutting and whatthe editor wants to emphasize. In this domestic family quarrel, for example, the scene isslanted toward the wronged wife (Keiko Kishi, lower right) and her bullying husband(Teinosuke Sachiko, center left). Her sisters and brother-in-law observe from the rear of theroom. But another editor could focus on any of the other four characters, giving them moreprominence in the sequence by cutting to their reactions more often, thus conveying thescene primarily from that characters perspective. In short, six different stories could be told,depending on how the sequence is cut together, and who gets the most shots. (R5/S8)
135C H A P T E R F O U R E D I T I N G
The continuity of actual space and time is fragmented as smoothly as possible in thistype of editing. Unless the audience has a clear sense of a continuous action, an editingtransition can be disorienting. Hence the term jump cut, which means an editing transi-tion thats confusing in terms of space and time. To make their transitions smooth,filmmakers generally use establishing shots at the beginning of their stories or at thebeginning of any new scene within the narrative.
Once the location is established, filmmakers then can cut to closer shots of theaction. If the events require a considerable number of cuts, the filmmaker might cut backto a reestablishing shota return to the opening long shot. In this way, the viewer isreminded of the spatial context of the closer shots. Between these various shots, timeand space can be expanded or contracted with considerable subtlety.
By 1908, when the American D. W. Griffith entered the field of filmmaking, movieshad already learned how to tell stories thanks to the technique of cutting to continuity.But the stories were simple and crude compared to those in more sophisticated narrativemediums like literature and drama. Nonetheless, movie storytellers already knew that bybreaking up an action into different shots, the event can be contracted or expanded, de-pending on the number of shots. In other words, the shot, not the scene, was the basicunit of film construction.
Movies before Griffith were usually photographed in stationary long shotroughlythe position of a close observer in the live theater. Because film time doesnt depend onthe duration of the literal event, filmmakers of this era introduced a more subjective time,one thats determined by the duration of the shots (and the elapsed time implied betweenthem), not by the actual occurrence.
D. W. Griffith and Classical CuttingThe basic elements of editing syntax were already in place when Griffith entered the field,but it was he more than any other individual who molded these elements into a languageof power and subtlety. Film scholars have called this language classical cutting. Griffith
REALISM CLASSICISM FORMALISM
The Arrival of a Train
A Trip tothe Moon
The Birth of a Nation