Coates died Tuesday at 92 as one of the medium’s greatest editors.
During the course of her career, she was nominated for five Oscars, winning one in 1963 for “Lawrence of Arabia.” History has proved that Oscar was well deserved.
The film was a beast to edit, to put it mildly. Director David Lean had shot more than 33 miles of film, which he and Coates had to cut into a watchable movie. The resulting 3 hours and 36 minutes has been dubbed by the American Film Institute as the fifth-greatest American movie produced during the first 100 years of American cinema.
It also contains a match cut that many have described as one of the greatest and most influential scene transitions in film history.
For the uninitiated, a match cut is a hard cut — meaning the image simply changes without a dissolve or a slow fade — between two scenes that are thematically linked but that are often set in different places and/or times.
“When something happens with the forcefulness that a match cut has, it tells us that this is important,” Sean Fennessey, editor in chief of the Ringer and host of the film podcast “The Big Picture,” told The Washington Post.
A famous example appears in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” A hominid throws a bone into the air, and the camera follows it as it spins against a blue sky. That shot is immediately replaced with the image of a satellite floating through space, jerking the viewer from the ancient past to the future, from tool to tool.
“Lawrence of Arabia” is based on the life of T.E. Lawrence, a British military officer who gained international fame of legendary proportions during World War I after he was sent to Arabia with the British army and became a liaison to the Arab forces during the Arab Revolt, sometimes even leading military strikes against the Ottoman forces.
The movie follows his rise from a fairly low-level but ambitious young officer to the towering figure who would be known as Lawrence of Arabia. The match cut for which Coates received so much praise tells this entire story, in a way, in a matter of minutes. It’s a sort of thematic synecdoche for the nearly four-hour film.
The scene begins in Cairo with Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) about to embark to the Arabian desert, where the destiny that will transform him and much of the modern world awaits. Mr. Dryden (Claude Raines), the head of the Arab Bureau, has just enlisted Lawrence to serve as a liaison. He warns the young man that the desert is not always kind.
“Lawrence, only two kinds of creatures get fun in the desert: Bedouins and gods, and you’re neither. Take it from me, for ordinary men, it’s a burning, fiery furnace,” Dryden says.
“No, Dryden, it’s going to be fun,” Lawrence responds, as he strikes a match and lights Dryden’s cigarette.
“It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun,” Dryden says, after blowing out a plume of smoke.
The camera then zooms in on Lawrence’s face as he stares at the flame still burning on the tip of the match. Silence stretches for several seconds, broken only by Lawrence’s breath as he blows it out.
Immediately, the scene changes to the burning orange sun rising over the seemingly endless desert — where much of the rest of the film unfolds.
“It makes the jump from the small story of Lawrence, a small bureaucrat, to the mythic Lawrence of Arabia,” said Michael Jablow, head of the editing discipline at the AFI Conservatory. “It’s not just that it’s a good cut, but that it was brilliant storytelling.”
The scenes’ contrasts make the cut so impactful, according to Jablow.
“It’s a combination of extremes: the combination of this extreme close-up of the flame on the match to the sun coming up over the horizon, which jumped from the extreme micro to the extreme macro,” he said. “I can’t remember anyone else who had quite done something like that before.”
Some, such as New Yorker critic Anthony Lane, see the moment as a sort of Rorschach test to determine if you’re a movie lover.
“If you don’t get this cut, if you think it’s cheesy or showy or over the top, and if something inside you doesn’t flare up and burn at the spectacle that Lean has conjured, then you might as well give up the movies,” Lane once wrote.
The script had actually called for a dissolve, in which one scene slowly fades into another. Today, that can be done quickly with editing software. At the time, though, filmmakers and editors had to create the effect by hand, ordering extra negatives of the film, which was then often double exposed and overlaid with each other.
Sometimes filmmakers would simply mark up the film with a grease pen for early viewings and save that work for later. That’s exactly what Lean and Coates had done, according to Justin Chang’s book “FilmCraft: Editing.”
“We marked a dissolve, but when we watched the footage in the theater, we saw it as a direct cut,” Coates told him. “David and I both thought, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting.’ So we decided to nibble at it, taking a few frames off here and there.”
“David said, ‘That is a fabulous cut.’ He said, ‘It’s not quite perfect — take it away and make it perfect,’ and I literally took two frames off, and that’s the way it is today,” she said, readily admitting, “If I had been working digitally, I would never have seen those two shots cut together like that.”
“I like to think we would have gotten the idea anyway,” Coates added. “But another director would not necessarily have seen it or liked it. Luckily, David and I thought alike.”