Meryl Streep Gets a Silkwood Shower

Over the fifteen years I’ve been working closely with professional editors, I’ve frequently asked them if they have a “favorite edit,” which would be a single moment in a specific film when an edit occurs that affected them deeply. Perhaps it’s the moment he or she discovered what “film” really means or decided that this is the aesthetic path they’d like to follow. Odds are it would have happened in their teens, when such moments of discovery are common.

Not one editor has ever answered with an example, and most look at me askance. Oh, well…

Anyway, I have a few edits that changed the way I view film—and, therefore, obviously, the way I view life–and intensified my desire to have a hand in this crazy Business we call Show. My example for this post comes from Mike Nichols’s Silkwood (1983).

Four times in the film, characters working at a nuclear facility suffer radiation exposure, set off an alarm, and are subjected to the brutal decontamination process, aka a ‘Silkwood shower.’ Each instance is handled differently cinematically, but the first three dwell more on the process of the immediate aftermath of the alarm going off or the length of the decontamination process. Here, for example, is the first time it occurs, about 25 minutes into the film, when one of Karen Silkwood’s co-workers gets “cooked.” Notice how long every step takes.

The final time it happens, which is the third time it’s happened to Karen, is late in the film and the plot reached a real tempo of misfortune for the character. Shrewdly, Nichols cuts straight from the alarm to the worst part of the cleansing process:

If I remember correctly, when that edit happened I turned to my Mother and said, “Did you see THAT!!?” (OK, I may be making that part up.) It rocked me to my core.

As far as the History of Cinema is concerned, however, this isn’t a revolutionary. Hardly. Since the 60s, filmmakers, realizing their audience had been raised on TV and film, had become more willing and interested in “cutting to the chase,” which is, after all, an idiom created in the edit room.

So while Nichols was doing nothing new in 1983, the impact was new to me. I was fourteen and growing in leaps and bounds intellectually, and I was very receptive to awesome shit like this. And what I felt, in an instant, when it went from poor Karen’s face to that damned close-up, was that the director had schooled us, thanks to the prior instances in the film, to the process of anti-contamination and knew that we now no longer needed all the muckity-muck.

And there’s more going on here, something I’m going to bring up frequently on this blog: character-driven filmmaking. To me that’s when a character’s emotions dictate the mechanics of the film, such as the camera movement, the lighting, and, in this case of this entry, the editing.

Y’see, the moment that alarm goes off, Karen Silkwood thinks of that hose blast. That edit is exactly what happens in her mind, which means her emotions control the filmmaking, in a sense wrestling it away from Mike Nichols.

To go a step further–and verbalize what might have happened to me when I first saw this film as a teenager–that moment in Silkwood is a perfect illustration that film is able to put us somewhere emotionally faster than any other medium, including writing. The shift that occurs on that edit from Silkwood’s stunned, dry face to a closer shot of her face being blasted by a hose, happens in less time than it takes for us to blink. And you know it works when you feel the audience flinch as a single body.

(Oh, and I encourage any of you editors out there to respond with the Edit That Saved YOUR Life!)


Filed under Film

19 responses to “Meryl Streep Gets a Silkwood Shower

  1. Fedde

    I can’t remember a specific edit that changed my life – but I can say a LACK of an edit made a deep impression on me at around fourteen years old. A couple of minutes into Dali and Bunuel’s “Chien Andalou” there’s the iconic shot of a razor slicing through a woman’s eye – about as extreme close-up as you can get (at which point it’s actually a goat’s eye, I later read). And unlike any film I’d seen to that point in my young life, clearly prior to exposure to say, Dario Argento, *they showed the whole thing.* Didn’t cut away to leave you with just the implication that something horrible has happened but sparing you the direct experience, but instead showed the full event, the eye dripping. Made me cringe, but knocked my socks off, as the filmmakers intended. They wanted to signify the cutting of perception, inviting viewers into their surreal landscapes with open minds. Instead it sliced my perception of what’s permissible in a movie: all of a sudden, it seemed that there aren’t any rules in this whole film thing, except the ones you impose yourself. And that seemed amazingly liberating. Admittedly, I was pretty new to the whole concept of experimental filmmaking at the time, but it’s one of a handful of clear moments that made me want to become a filmmaker myself.

    • That’s so cool, Fedde! And exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. It was a real “shake your head and say, ‘Wait a minute…'” moment, right?

      Coincidentally, I’m going to do some posts later about the LACK of editing. That shit’s cool, too!

  2. mike

    i think i’d have to say one of the first cuts that made a lasting impression on me is actually a few quick cuts from goodfellas- karen hide’s henry’s gun w/ the milk bottles, cut to henry braking glass at his wedding “mazel tov”, cut to pan of family getting photo taken. brilliant!

    • I LOVE those edits, too. It’s like not only did Scorsese decide that seeing any more of their courtship or a proposal scene weren’t necessary, it kinda makes that prior scene the “proposal scene”: when Henry pistol-whips the guy, he’s making his intentions clear; and when Karen takes the gun, she’s accepting his proposal.

      • Jansen

        that’s a very insightful comment about the “proposal” through violence/protection. That’s also a good example of not cutting. As he pistol whips the guy, there are no cuts..all one take from the walk over till he puts the gun in her hand. She is also accepting his nature in that moment by not protesting..”I gotta admit, it turned me on..”

  3. mik


    i think i left out a shot. i believe we see henry and karen kiss before the pan of the family. guess i’m slippin’ in my old age!

  4. Jansen

    hmm, That’s funny that you say many editors look at you blankly when you ask about the cut..I guess the really good edits are so seamless we don’t even register them. I’ve always enjoyed the emotional smash cut, as you describe in silkwood..

    Well the one that jumps immediately to mind is 2001. A cliche, but really, the movie was like a sober acid trip for me and melted my brain forever.
    I was 7. My dad took me to see it in one of its many re releases ( before video rentals ). It was about a 45 minute drive from our house and he realized he’d forgotten his wallet at the ticket booth. “Can I send the kid in and go get my wallet?”
    So seventies! Who on earth would allow a seven year old into a theatre by himself anymore? And I was literally by myself in a huge theatre getting a private screening of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. I was completely alone for the first two hours of the film..No one to ask “what’s going on?”
    I can not overstate the effect it had on me.

    At any rate the edit is not the one that is perhaps the most mentioned temporal ellipses ever ( The bone /weapon thrown into the air which then smash cuts to a Nuclear satellite millions of years later ) But a moment earlier in the “Dawn of Man” sequence.

    The ape/proto humans have recently awoken to the Monolith and have all touched it.

    Now we see the soon to be leader rooting about scratching the earth for any insects or meager food to be found. He’s moving near the skeleton of a fallen beast. The camera is ground level, fixed. He pauses looks at the bones. There is a cut to a shot we saw once before. It lasts two seconds; a view of the monolith from it’s base, looking skyward. It’s dusk and the monolith is a stark black cut out against the sky. The sun is just cresting past the top edge, and a perfect crescent moon is in alignment with the sun. Then back to The ape, still pondering the bones. Now he sees something in them he never has before…A weapon.

    Somehow that brief cut tells you emotionally, on an almost non intellectual level, that the mysterious Monolith is responsible for this new insight.

    I don’t know what the technique is called, but it’s one that I’ve loved ever since. The incredible power of a brief cut to something not connected to the space of whatever scene you are in and then returning to that scene, or person. It immediately imparts a sense of thought, flashback, memory. It does so in a visceral way that only film can impart..

    the cut takes place around the five minute mark, for the lead in start around minute four.

    • You said a mouthful, Jansen.

      I’m not a big supporter of 2001. I wish I were as it would make life easier. I tend to promote Kubrick’s B&W films over his color, but that angle normally gets folder chairs thrown at me. (But that’ll come up in another post, I’m sure!)

      I just watched the edit you’re talking about–the cutaway to the monolith–and I think you’re right on the money. The swelling music cue doesn’t hurt to steer us to the “weapon” moment, but let’s face it: a lesser director might not have used the cutaway of the monolith but instead gone to the leader’s POV. Man, I’m so glad Kubrick doesn’t use caveman POVs!!

      Also, going to see films in the 70s was a lawless kind of experience, wasn’t it?

      • Jansen

        you’re making fun of me..yes I prattle on..

        caveman POV’s!! Hate those..

        70’s cinema. I’ll never forget the sticky floors and the awful monaural sound coming from the one speaker to the right, near the exit sign, which would throw an awful hue across the screen. General Cinemas..

        and then of course…Times Square..
        would love to read the saltobello Take on 70’s movie going

        And yes, I agree that his early stuff is woefully overlooked, particularly Paths Of Glory. ( bastard was 28 when he did that )

        That’s funny about the folder chairs (Mike Worrel comes to mind ) I find most people are in your camp. Especially the youngsters. They can’t deal with the pace. It also doesn’t explain what’s going on, it leaves it largely up to the audience.

        I think it all has to do with seeing it in the theatre. It never has the same power on the tube. It was re released in December of 2001, played at the Loews Astor Plaza (now the Nokia theatre) new print new sound. Last thing Stanley did before he went was redo the print ..Amazing.

        But I completely understand those who don’t dig it.

        (Now you’re really gonna wish you hadn’t approved my comments. I’m sorry, I can’t help myself, you’re stirring the geek in me…)

        Whatever you think of the film, Kubrick sticking to his guns and basically making the biggest studio funded art film, ever, is an amazing story.

        If you think it sucks now imagine it the way the studio wanted it..

        The whole Dawn of Man sequence was to have narration explaining what was going on. (cringe..)Alex North (Spartacus ) wrote an entire score that was never used. (The stuff he wrote for the opening ape stuff was actually lifted heavily by Jerry Goldsmith for Planet of The Apes. Jerry and Alex were friends.)

        During the premier people were sneaking out of the theatre until Rock Hudson stood up during the light show, near the end, and loudly cried “Can anyone tell me what the hell is going on in this film?” and walked out, causing a mass exodus of the theatre.

        The Studio only kept the film playing at all because they were contractually obligated to.

        What saved it? John Lennon appeared on Dick Cavett. When asked what his favorite film was he answered without hesitation. “2001. It’s incredible, I go every week.”
        Every hippy in America went. Suddenly it was making bank. The posters were changed to “the ultimate trip” and as I’m sure you’ve heard would drop acid halfway through the film.

        The rest, as they say, is history..

      • Wow, I knew so little about that film. Thanks.

        But I should be clear: I respect the film and Kubrick’s intention, I just don’t enjoy it terribly much. It blows me away on many fronts, and the next time the opportunity presents itself, I’ll see it projected.

        Of all the things I miss about 70s cinema it’s prob. the re-releases that I miss the most. Those pre-cable, pre-VHS days would make February and March a joy, as the studios would blow the dust off some old stand-bys such as Jaws or The Exorcist, for some easy cash.

      • Jansen

        So true…
        I saw American Graffiti at least a dozen times in re release. Close Encounters, Raiders, Star Wars, which really never went our of release..There was a theatre near where I lived that only showed re release. (Jeez, guess I like Lucas and Spielberg)

  5. One edit that immediately comes to mind is in the underrated Road to Wellville (dir: Alan Parker), starring John Cusack, Matthew Broderick and Anthony Hopkins. Anyway, there is a scene where Broderick gets an enema and scampers down the hallway with this hose up his ass. He ends up in a room where a nurse then grabs the hose and forcefully pulls it out, cut to a shot of beer shooting out of a tap into a glass at the local pub.

    This got an immediate and vocal reaction from the crowd in the theater. The content of both scenes is funny or banal enough but cut together adds a level of humor that is absent in both shots alone. Damn funny stuff there.

    Here’s a sample of the film:

    I’m sure there are more.

    • Hey, Matt! Great point: “but cut together adds a level of humor that is absent in both shots alone.” There are some edits like that in Cabaret, where because of the edit, both the outgoing scene as well as the incoming get an extra push. Not for humor, like in your excellent description, but along the same lines.

  6. I guess I go to comedies to answer your question more than dramas as I find editing comedy a hell of a lot more challenging than drama.

    How about the “Dog food!!!?? I’ll show him dog food!!” cut in Caddyshack? It’s brilliant because they don’t give it to you right away. Czervick (Rodney Dangerfield) has the waitress “tell the chef that this is low-grade dog food,” and the scene just continues. We cut away to another scene, then only after that, a good two or three minutes later do we get the furious chef shouting his line. I love the delay tactic that was used. They could have easily cut directly to the chef when the line was fresh but by delaying it, the impact s stronger. Classic.

  7. I’ve said it always: the 70’s is the premiere decade for film. I feel it was where commerce and art were in greatest balance. You had films that we’re risky but commercially viable as well. The Exorcist was, and still is, the most frightening film ever. Never to be duplicated. The Godfather, 1 and 2. Jaws. Even Smokey and the Bandit. Genius.

  8. Pingback: When Not to Edit, Pt 4: Coppola’s Eavesdropping Camera « Peel Slowly

  9. Al

    I saw “Silkwood” when it arrived on Italian TVs, in 1988-89 (I don’t remember very well but I am sure I was 4 or 5 when I saw it… well my parents were watching it actually, but I was drawing at the table next to them and after 20 minutes I started to watch it too, that’s what I remember).

    During all the movie I stood mouth-opened staring at the mystery of this strange nuclear stuff that cooks you and all this strange poison called “contamination” (well that’s my 5-year-old interpretation LOL… Needless to say, nerd as I already was, this awakened a tremendous curiosity for everything concerning nuclear power & co.)

    Those showers were printed deeply in my mind.
    But it was the last shower of the movie that was branded deep in my brain and came out in the all the following years during nightmares, dreams, fantasies.
    I think it was especially for the cut: the horrible alarm at the radiation counter gate, the panicked face of Meryl Streep (so close that you could even see her nose hair, my God I was dancing on my chair anxious as I’ve never been) and all of the sudden that horrible shower…

    After this, periodically, I went to my mom and ask her “Do you remember that movie where the girl works in a nuclear plant and she’s contaminated and takes those horrible showers? What’s the title? I want to see it again!” She didn’t remember, my father neither (“Oh the title was her surname, wasn’t it? But what was it again? Uhhhmm… ehhhhmmm…. Nope I don’t remember” -.-) and I didn’t see it for years, but continued to dream about these showers, every once in a while.

    Then the power of Internet came, last night I dreamt of the showers again and yesterday I finally searched on Google. And I stumbled upon your blog. And it was like… Epiphany! I found the Holy Grail of my nightmares that I’ve been searching for almost 20 years!!:D
    I finally saw it again, and really, I almost told you the story of my life and I bet it’s already 20 minutes that you’re asleep since you started reading my comment, but it was necessary to make you understand how much I thank you! 😀

    And all of this just to say what just a cut in a movie can make to the life (and brain) of a poor girl LOL but reading what you wrote in your (super-interesting) post I think you already know… 😉


    • Probably the best comment I’ve ever received on my blog. Well, I’ve received two other comments this week, similar in nature, all of which makes me grateful I made this blog: so we realize we’re not alone!

      Thanks for the kind words and great story!

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