When film editing calls attention to itself -- like the perversely terrifying pieces of footage spliced together in the "Psycho" shower sequence (notice how the knife never actually pierces the skin) or the quick, dazzling close-ups of Warren Beatty and Faye dunaway, looking at each other right before they are killed in "bonnie and Clyde" -- the audience may be aware of something unsettling going on. But what is it?
As film editor Ralph Rosenblum points out, it is unlikely for people to walk out of the theater saying, "I really dug the editing" because, despite the behind-the-scenes shaping, manipulating and fine-tuning, the finished product should have a streamlined, seamless quality that gives the impression the movie was originally shot that way.
Perhaps this is why editing is not often contemplated or discussed -- even among those who pride themselves on some sort of movie sense -- this leaving huge gaps in the literature of film scholarship. Rosenbaum, the cutter of "The Producers," "A Thousand Clowns" and all the Woody Allen pictures from "Take the Money and Run" to "Interiors," redresses the situation in this superb memoir -- an intriguing mixture of film history and criticism, personal experience and demonstration, as well as a dash of splendid Hollywood gossip tossed in for a mischeivous subtext.
Whether Rosenblum and his co-writer Robert Karen are ribbing some filmakers's approach to editing (Herb Gardner saying he wanted to make "a few change-a-roonies" and then spending 10 months in the cutting room), or analyzing the work of Alian Resnais or Jean-Luc Godard, or thoroughly breaking down a film like "The Pawnbroker" to bits and pieces to illustrate the cuts, the authors exhibit such skill and vividness that the subtle and complex possibilities of the art of editing take holdd in the reader's mind.
It is Rosenblum's thesis that editors are an oppressed class, belonging to an anonymous and unglamorous world, unnoticed and unloved, yet still a strangely powerful force. The editor with or without the collaboration of the director, must spend months on 20 or 40 hours of raw footage for a single feature film, whittling it down to a cogent two hours. Scenes must be selected, arranged, paced, embellished. Decisions of theme, tone and perspective must be made. (Constant headaches: What actor should be focused on during a moment of dialogue? At what tempo should a given scene move? What kind of music should be used to underscore the effect of the editing?)
All this is painstakingly stretched over several lonely months seemingly designed to test the patience of Job. It's no wonder Sergei Eisenstein, who spent weeks of near round-the-clock labor to complete the classic "Potemkin," was served with a paternity suit by his assistant cutter. (She produced as evidence a photograph he gave to her inscribed, "In memory of those nights spent together.")
Rosenblum, plagued with a childhood anxiety over stammering, a drive to succeed and beleif in his own superiority -- "the superiority of the afflicted," as he and Woody Allen put it -- was drawn to editing as an outlet to express himself "by almost every aspect of my childhood experience. The darkness, the isolation, the power of the process over the emotions of millions of people who never knew it existed, the alchemical secrecy." His work in a variety of formats including features, documentaries, animation, commericials, television comedy and variety, soon gave him the reputation in the business as the man who saved potential disasters (usually by first-time or inexperienced directors).
One gets a good idea what editing can and cannot do as he describes raw footage and sences not used in final versions, how it is assembled and why. Academy Award winner "Annie Hall," he says, was not focused on the Annie-Alvy relationship at first, but on Alvy's inability to feel pleasure in all aspects of his life. Most of the first 20 minutes were chopped off, the "present tense" material given precedence over flashback and dream sequences, and a new ending tacked on, including a montage reviewing the love affair. A lovely coda is a shot of Keaton and Allen on a pier, Allen pointing to something, and a subsequent cut to a shot of them kissing -- a perfect "cinematic" finish.
A dividend to the more edifying sections is a surprising liveliness and wit (which certainly separates it from Karel Reisz's famous text, "The Technique of Film Editing"). This becomes apparent in Rosenblum's willingness to let us peek into the making of "The Producers" as Mel Brooks throws his daily tantrums, requesting Zero Mostel's presence on the set by asking, "Is that fat pig ready?" Other anecdotes, especially those surrounding the editing of the satirical Jewish wedding sequence in "Goodbye Columbus," are equally tasteless and delightful. wIf it is his intention to make us think about movies in not quite the same way as before, he succeeds -- and in perhaps more ways than he thinks.