Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Rhythm of Images: In Praise of Editing

Lately I've had editing on the brain. Perhaps I've always had it. My first real job was as a teenage intern editor for a diocese newspaper, where I learned how egotistical bad writers could be with regard to their words. Not that good writers are wont of ego, but most good writing rarely comes to the page in its original form. There is much tinkering behind the scenes. At a young age I became interested in the rhythm of words, in how the "right" or "wrong" word can make a difference in the construction of a sentence, a paragraph, an entire piece. Even now, I'm wondering if "egotistical" is the best possible word for what I'm describing, if "possessive" or another term wouldn't be better. Re-read my posts and you may see many subtle changes from one moment to the next (such as the addition of this sentence). I'm never satisfied.

It's probably only natural that I've been an admirer of film editing for a long time too. I'm not an expert on the technical aspects of the subject. I'm less confident in talking about editing movies as I am editing prose, but I know what I like. As with writing, I think the best film editing is invisible, the kind of thing that you appreciate only after the fact. All good movies have a rhythm to their images both at the micro-level (the cutting within a scene) and the macro-level (how all the scenes are arranged together). Debra Winger's infamous grievance that her 1986 comedy Legal Eagles looked like it had been edited "with a chainsaw" may have been a little extreme, but it was an honest aesthetic reaction to the intricacies of a technique that more actors would do well to appreciate.

Last week I wrote about how Jonathan Demme's Swing Shift (1984) was damaged by Goldie Hawn-approved re-shoots and re-edits, and that Hawn's tampering may have harmed her own performance more than anything else. Steve Vineberg's original expose on the subject, which I encourage everyone to read in full, is the definitive word on how the structure of scenes matters in a movie. ("Demme's cut is the same length [as the studio cut] but seems to move twice as fast," Vineberg writes. "His editing gives it a flying density.") For an analysis of building structure within an individual scene, I recommend Steven Santos's recent essay on Hitchcock's The Wrong Man. Santos, a professional freelance editor, also had some perceptive thoughts in response to a quote attributed to film critic Steven Boone (scroll down to the comments), where the latter blames the reduction of movie editing to "newsmagazine pastiche" as primarily responsible for the latest Decline Of Cinema. I save the full reading to yourselves, but the short of it is that Santos, half in agreement, nonetheless takes a broader view of the problems regularly coming out of a production that even the best editors can't fix. (To which the always overexcitable Boone has taken a break from ranting about Christopher Nolan's fascistic tendencies* to post a rebuttal.)

(*Nolan's no fascist, but I acknowledge the editing in his Batman movies is dismayingly bad.)

It's here that I want to commend a film editor who should be a legend but isn't. At the age of 84, the Surrey, England-born Anne V. Coates has been editing movies for over 50 years and is still applying her craft: her last credit was The Golden Compass (2007); her next, Crowley, starring Harrison Ford, Brendan Fraser and Keri Russell, is due out next year. Coates has edited an impressive range of films from a variety of genres: the historical drama Becket (1964); the classical mystery Murder on the Orient Express (1974); David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980); the Bill Murray comedy What About Bob? (1991); the Clint Eastwood thriller In the Line of Fire (1993). She's been involved in some bad movies too -- Striptease (1996), Congo (1995), Raw Deal (1986) -- but nobody blames her for their ineptitude. Coates is the kind of editor who makes bad movies more tolerable and good movies even better. She has proven herself open to innovation and has helped to shape many memorable performances. I'm not a fan of Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful (2002), but it's a safe bet that the editing of that film -- particularly the sequence that cross-cuts Diane Lane on a subway train with the stirrings of her affair with another man -- helped Lane earn an Oscar nomination.

 If bad editing is inevitably recognized (as Debra Winger demonstrated), good editing often goes unnoticed. Let's compare two movies that Coates cut, a pair of films that couldn't be more different and demonstrate her versatility and command.

"David Lean always used to say, "Have the courage of your conviction, tell the story your way. I'll respect what you did, although in certain instances I may want things another way." He would hold these shots of the desert, and I'd say, "David, you can't hold them that long." However, he said, "Wait until the music's on, wait until the whole rhythm is together." And he was right." -- An interview with Anne V. Coates (by Walter Murch)

1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Prior to David Lean's ravishing epic, Coates had dabbled mainly in B-movies like Forbidden Cargo (1954) and Don't Bother to Knock (1961). A lengthy biopic about an enigmatic war hero, then, was one hell of a change of pace. Her first and only Oscar win (out of five nominations to date), the 216-minute Lawrence (228-minute director's cut) is the kind of time-consumer that makes people wonder, "What exactly did they cut?"

The editing in Lawrence of Arabia has remarkable ebb and flow, a mix of longueurs punctuated by sudden jump cuts. One of my favorite examples comes late, following the massacre of the Turkish soldiers, when Lean and Coates abruptly transition from a closeup of Arthur Kennedy's camera bulb (seemingly an influence on Scorsese) to a rider on horseback bearing news of the conquest of Damascus. The most famous example comes early. A younger Lawrence in Cairo, newly assigned to "assess the situation" in the Arab desert, shows Claude Rains's diplomat his perverse trick with a burning match. "It's going to be fun, Dryden," Lawrence says. "It has been noted," Dryden replies, "that you have a funny sense of fun." With that, Coates cuts from Peter O'Toole blowing out the match --

-- to the sun rising in the desert.

 The conjoining of these two images establishes early on everything the viewer needs to know: the main character's eccentricity, masochism, and inherent unknowability, and how these will be simultaneously formed and broken by a pitiless environment. Throughout the movie, Coates's editing emphasizes the conflict between Lawrence's impatience for glory -- through jump-cuts -- and the patience needed to survive in the desert -- through long passages depicting characters moving vertically or horizontally (such as Omar Sharif's memorable entrance) from one end of the screen to the other. Lean was right about how the rhythm comes together; the whole of the picture is beautifully, organically conceived.

"I like having a little edge with the director -- you know, discussions and arguments. I think that's what editors are partly there for, like a sounding board....I knew that Steven did things in a fairly far-out way. So I said to him, "Stretch me." -- An interview with Anne V. Coates (by Walter Murch)

2. Out of Sight (1998). Steven Soderbergh's hugely entertaining adaptation of one of Elmore Leonard's patented comic thrillers achieves its effects largely through Coates's amazingly nimble editing. (This is also one of her five Best Editing nominations.) Whereas previous efforts to translate Leonard were mostly grinding affairs, Out of Sight moves briskly back and forth through time, always keeping the audience aware of where we are in the story. Part of this accomplishment comes from smart visual cues, like the color of the various prison garbs worn by Foley (George Clooney) and his buddies in different parts of the narrative. (Orange for present day, yellow for the past.) Coates and Soderbergh use other techniques (among my favorites being the dissolve from Jennifer Lopez's injured, bed-ridden Karen Sisco to Don Cheadle's sadistic Snoopy Miller strutting down a prison hallway like he owns the joint) and motifs (like close-ups of the repeated snapping of Foley's cigarette lighter) that transition, by turns gradually and suddenly, from one scene to the next.

Coates's deft cutting also makes Out of Sight more than just an amusing crime caper. At its heart is a love story between a Federal Marshal and a bank robber, between one character chasing the other from Miami to Detroit until both pause for a "time-out" in a hotel restaurant. Foley and Sisco discuss the improbability of their relationship, and Coates and Soderbergh cross-cut their conversation at the restaurant --

-- with a wordless montage of the pair in a hotel room going to bed together.

 Soderbergh has always employed a distinct emotional shorthand that, for its admirable refusal to lapse into sentimentality, frequently comes across as cold. But Coates (aided by Soderbergh's mini-freeze-frames) brings out the heat in this sequence. Not only does her editing smooth out the rough edges of the story (implausibilities that would likely be more jarring in another movie), it heightens what Steve Vineberg called "the mood of romantic expectation." Lopez and Clooney have never been better than they are in Out of Sight, and while the director, screenwriter, source material, and the actors' own abilities deserve plenty of the credit, watch the film again and pay attention to how the rhythm of the images enhances their more appealing qualities. How it makes them something in short supply these days: movie stars.


Steven Santos said...

I truly enjoyed this piece, Craig. Admittedly, one of the reasons I started my blog and wanted to have posts (like the one about "The Wrong Man" you linked to above) where I focus on specific crafts is because there were so many aspects of filmmaking I wanted to see discussed more about on the internet. I almost feel film writing has become strictly general opinion pieces as opposed to going deeper into the art of filmmaking.

I do not want to completely dismiss the concept of auteurism, but I think it's important to dicuss how the different members of a filmmaking team contribute to the whole. This piece, along with the "Swing Shift" piece last week, demonstrate the importance of the arranging and timing of images in motion pictures. As distinctive as a director as both Lean and Soderbergh are, it was clear than Anne V. Coates played a major part in the success of those movies.

I actually consider "Lawrence of Arabia" one of the best edited features of all time. It shows a patience with the images that makes you feel were in the desert along with Lawrence. Epic filmmaking today never has such a feeling for its locations. One of the reasons for that is that they don't often allow the moments and images to breathe in the editing room to give you a sense of place.

Fernando F. Croce said...

Splendid piece, Craig. As Steven said above, it's amazing how often criticism these days ignores the visual language of a film and simply settles for plot summaries.

As something of a long-take fetishist, I'm pretty sensitive to editing, particularly visual transitions. Both Lawrence and Out of Sight are marvelous examples, but one of my favorites is in There Will Be Blood, the cut from H.W. Plainview and Mary Sunday playing as children to them as an adult couple at the altar. The cut isn't so flashy that it sticks out, but the effect is ineffably poetic -- to me, the very definiting of great editing.

Craig said...

Steven, I hope you continue with your editing pieces. In addition to more self-contained scene analyses like "The Wrong Man," I'd be interested in seeing examples of scene-arrangement in films, both well-done and not so well-done. I bet Keith at The House might be interested in that kind of piece too.

Fernando, I'm with you on that cut in "There Will Be Blood" -- also one of my favorites in recent years. You're right that it's not flashy, but it's definitely unexpected the first time you see it. Yet it makes you feel like an entire life has been encompassed in a few short seconds.

I had to look up the editor for that movie: Dylan Tichenor, a name that has somehow escaped me despite editing nearly all of PT Anderson's films, along with Wes's "Royal Tenenbaums." Another editor whose work I admire -- and whose name I do recognize -- is Thelma Schoonmaker, who has cut all of Martin Scorsese's movies (and virtually only his movies) from "Raging Bull" on. And Craig McKay, editor of most of Jonathan Demme's movies, has done sensational work too. The sequence in "Silence of the Lambs" following Lecter's escape is revealed simply by Kasi Lemmons dropping a phone and running down the hallway, followed by Jodie Foster already having heard the news. (Think of how much exposition was spared in that sequence.) As well as, of course, the brilliant cross-cutting near the end, when the feds descend on the wrong house at the same time Clarice unwittingly rings the doorbell at Buffalo Bill's.

Nevertheless, Anne Coates towers over them all. I'm never fully conscious of it, but I always feel a ripple of pleasure watching movies she edits. She cuts with such precision that I even feel those ripples in a Julia Roberts vanity-project like "Erin Brockovich." I still remember the scene that opens that movie, where I believe Erin is trying to bluff her way through...was it a job interview? Something like that. And Coates and Soderbergh cut right after she finishes and the guy she's talking to simply says, "Look...." It's so much more effective than hearing the whole speech.

Jason Bellamy said...

I'd been saving this piece, and it's great reading.

Indeed as you've said -- and as Steven notes regularly -- editing is one of those things that's so difficult to praise. Some directors are saved by their editors. Some editors are saved by directors who shoot things in such a way that there is little room to 'screw it up' (Hitch did this all the time).

And then what do you say of a director who learns how to direct based on what he/she has learned from the editing process? Take Scorsese's relationship with Schoonmaker. I figure that Schoonmaker has less to "shape," if you will, these days than in the early days. Schoonmaker has probably rubbed off on the way Scorsese imagines his films in the first place.

I respect the hell out of editors, and I wish it was easier to recognize their efforts.

Craig said...

And then what do you say of a director who learns how to direct based on what he/she has learned from the editing process? Take Scorsese's relationship with Schoonmaker. I figure that Schoonmaker has less to "shape," if you will, these days than in the early days. Schoonmaker has probably rubbed off on the way Scorsese imagines his films in the first place.

Interesting, since I think Scorsese's recent output suggests he could benefit from more editing: "The Aviator" and "Gangs of New York" feel pretty unwieldy. I still consider him a director more attuned to editing rhythms than others who place more emphasis on cinematography -- the images themselves. (Wasn't there a discussion recently at The House about this?)

You're right that some directors know exactly what they want (e.g., Clint Eastwood) and therefore, I suspect, leave relatively little to post-production, while others shoot a lot of material to be sorted out later in the editing room. Of course Eastwood and other directors might benefit from giving themselves more options, whereas some directors who shoot plenty of footage have no real sense of editing and come off as wasteful.

I have no strong quantitative evidence for this, but it seems that filmmakers who have an ear for music (Scorsese, Demme) -- who have even directed concert films (Scorsese, Demme) as opposed to strictly music videos -- have a keener understanding of editing than those who don't. A fair assessment?

Edward Copeland said...

It's funny how you talk about editing of words because that is one thing the Web offers. If I'm re-reading something I wrote a long time ago and don't like, I have been known to go in and revise it, even years later. Can there ever be a final draft for me online?

Jason Bellamy said...

"Interesting, since I think Scorsese's recent output suggests he could benefit from more editing."

Craig: I thought about that. And maybe it means Scorsese is thinking too much like Schoonmaker. I have no idea. It's just another illustration of how hard it is to know when to credit a director vs an editor.

As for the ear-for-music theory. It sure makes sense. And you could add to the list Tarantino, whose films are carefully composed (long when he wants them to be, quick when he wants them to be) and whose love of music (and knack for selecting it) is well established.

Edward: "Can there ever be a final draft for me online?" Have you been drinking with George Lucas again?

Craig said...

Ed: I'm glad to know I'm not the only one! Perhaps because I got my start in newspapers, I used to feel like I was doing something wrong, making edits post-publication. Now, I think: Why not? If a typo's sticking out like an eyesore, it's a sweet feeling to remove the sucker.

Jason: QT is an interesting case. Sometimes I find the editing in his films a little odd, the actual cuts themselves seemingly awkward at times. There's a formality to his style that comes across as idiosyncratic in the midst of all the nuttiness, which looks normal by comparison. On the other hand, his sense of structure -- of narrative arrangement -- is peerless.

I won't knock Marty's choice of editors. Thelma is a talented lady, and he's been with her longer than any of his wives.

Craig said...

I just found a typo in my previous comment and re-edited it. Befitting the occasion.