To Appreciate the Art of Film Editing, You Must Start With a Frame of Reference

The Post critic explains how the rapid-fire cut in the "Bourne" movies has influenced other action films, both for better and worse.
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009

How do we know within the first 10 minutes of "Slumdog Millionaire" that it's going to be a fanciful, time-shifting, rag-to-riches fable about a plucky orphan boy set in the slums of Mumbai?

How do we keep track of Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as they make their way through a dizzying array of plot feints and fake-outs in "Duplicity"? Why does the almost painfully long wedding scene in "Rachel Getting Married" ring uncannily true, while the more conventionally paced "Bride Wars" seems utterly ersatz and contrived?

What makes us wait breathlessly to see what happens next in an otherwise by-the-numbers thriller? What makes hundreds of disparate people gathered in the dark laugh or cry or gasp at precisely the same moment?

The answers to these enduring mysteries can all be found in an unseen, largely misunderstood part of the filmmaking process, one that literally dwells in a darkened room. This is the purview of the film editor, the part-artist, part-technician (and maybe part-therapist) who, the minute cameras start rolling, begins to organize each day's footage to most closely approximate the director's vision. When shooting is finished she -- and as often as not the editor is a she -- works with the director to carefully shape, tweak and meticulously perfect the final theatrical version of the film.

It's the editor who catalogues every single take an actor does of a line and, thanks to computer technology, plops them in and takes them out and recombines them until every scene works. It's the editor who -- based on reactions from test audiences, the director's mechanic, and the producer's second cousin -- will keep switching shots around, taking out dialogue or snipping sequences until the movie moves, with its own rhythm and rhyme and inexorable logic.

How do we know a movie we've just seen was well edited? As with most elements of good cinema -- whether it's a performance, the lighting or the music -- when the editing works, we don't notice it. But there are a few questions viewers can ponder after seeing a movie, or while catching up with it again later on, that can help them evaluate one of the most invisible parts of the filmmaking craft.

Did the editing stand out?

It shouldn't have. The editor's job "is partly to anticipate, partly to control the thought processes of the audience," the legendary film editor Walter Murch ("The English Patient," "Cold Mountain") wrote in his editing primer "In the Blink of an Eye." He added that "if you are right with them, leading them ever so slightly, the flow of events feels natural and exciting at the same time." In striking that balance between spontaneity and propulsion, most editors strive to leave no fingerprints, content to create an emotional experience for the audience that's at once seamless and immersive. Editors have a word for movies that are edited in a way meant to draw attention to the editing itself : "cutty." As in, "Oh man, was 'Quantum of Solace' way too cutty or what?!"

In fact, "Quantum of Solace" was way too cutty. The 2008 James Bond installment's opening chase sequence -- a slam-edited jumble of incoherent images that left the audience disoriented (if not a little seasick) -- did nothing to establish the movie's narrative logic and tone. Rather, that sequence and the equally incoherent movie that followed seemed designed mainly to imitate "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum," which have virtually redefined the visual grammar of action movies. It's true that their director, Paul Greengrass, favors the sort of whiplash editing style that give his films an edgy sense of realism and reflects the amnesiac protagonist's own sense of dislocation. But though the approach works in the "Bourne" movies (as well as Greengrass's films "United 93" and "Bloody Sunday"), it's a strictly don't-try-this-at-home strategy best left to filmmakers of his superior gifts. (Other recent offenders in the trump-Bourne sweepstakes are "Speed Racer" and "The Dark Knight.")

Just because a film is hyper-edited doesn't mean it was more of a challenge. "Action is the easiest thing in the world to cut," says Billy Weber, who edited "Beverly Hills Cop," "Top Gun" and most of Terrence Malick's movies. "When was the last time you mowed down 40 people with an AK-47? Never? You have no idea what it looks like, except from what it looks like in the movies. But when was the last time you had an argument with your significant other? Two days ago? You know what that looks like. So when you portray that in a movie, if there's a false moment, it's picked up instantly by an audience. Drama and comedy are the two most challenging things to edit, because it's so much about human emotions and timing."

Are you obsessing about a scene instead of a story?

We all have favorite moments in movies. Who didn't marvel at that tracking shot through the Copacabana in "GoodFellas" or howl, in pain and laughter, at the chest-waxing scene in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"? But even the most bravura sequences shouldn't take viewers out of the movie. Rather, they should serve the greater story, whether to heighten its emotion, help define its structure or contribute to its rhythm. "There's an aphorism in editing, which is that there's no such thing as a great scene in a bad movie," says Jay Lash Cassidy, who has edited all of Sean Penn's directorial efforts. "Either it all works or none of it works."

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