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.