When Not to Edit, Pt 1: Eisenstein Meets Laurel & Hardy

Sadly, the average action scene in a contemporary film leaves me confused. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting old or getting cynical, but watching chase scenes in, say, The Bourne Identity make me feel like I’m falling down a flight of stairs backwards. My gut feeling is: too many close-ups, inadequate use of space, and too many damn edits.

Eisenstein doing what he did best.

I wonder how Russian director Sergei Eisenstein would feel about the state of editing in contemporary cinema. He’s legendary for his use of montage—editing images to create a cumulative effect (his most famous sequence being the “Odessa Steps” in Battleship Potemkin [1925])—but his editing was by no means gratuitous. Excessive to make a point, perhaps, but not editing as a way of cutting corners.

In fact, in the early 30s, when Eisenstein taught film direction at the Moscow State Cinema Institute, he challenged his class to stage an entire murder scene from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in a single static shot.1   His idea was simple: through a combination of camera placement, lenses and blocking, the dramatic impact of the scene can be accomplished without editing. He didn’t think editing is a crutch, per se, but that a filmmaker must exhaust all possibilities within the shot before resorting to an edit.

To be clear: Eisenstein wasn’t simply teaching a theater workshop where you stage the action for a proscenium. No, he points out that the camera’s ability to be set at varying heights and a lens’s ability to distort depth are crucial distinctions between theater and cinema. In other words, a scene doesn’t have to have an edit in it to be cinematic.

So, using that notion as a starting point, I’m doing a handful of posts about moments in films when a director chose to not edit, instances when he let a static shot tell his story, dramatically and/or emotionally.

I’ll begin with Laurel & Hardy’s silent short The Finishing Touch (1928) directed by Clyde Bruckman and Leo McCarey. Stan and Oliver are attempting to build a house and a policeman stops by. Here’s the shot, with Stan Laurel and Edgar Kennedy as the cop:

It doesn’t get much more basic than this, does it? I’ve seen this with an audience and noticed this shot generates two kinds of laughter: the expectant laughter while the board is floating across the screen (in both directions), and the outright laughter when Stan enters the frame (both times). Much of its humor is based on the duration of the shot: the longer the shot, the longer the laugh.

The creative forces behind the camera are formidable. The Supervising Director is Leo McCarey, who went on to direct the Marx Bros.’ Duck Soup, The Awful Truth with Cary Grant, and Going My Way. The Director is Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton’s collaborator on such films as Sherlock, Jr. and The General. And the Cameraman is George Stevens, future director of Shane and Giant. In other words, these guys know what they’re doing. And they know to play this scene any other way would kill the joke. If, for example, there had been a close up of the cop’s face, looking confused, then the tension would have been broken. And no tension equals less laughs.

The close-up that could have ruined the gag.

Likewise, the framing of the shot is as important as the length of it, since the timing of the punchlines is determined by when Stan enters and leaves the frame. In fact, if the camera moved at all in any direction, the impact of the jokes would have been minimized.

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In future posts I’ll dissect other examples of this kind of restraint, when directors used this kind of foresight, from Ozu to Oz, from Browning to Coppola. If you have any favorite shots of your own, shots that fit the criteria I’ve described, let me know. I’d love to hear about them.

Add’l posts in this series:

       • Ozu’s Unobtrusive Camera

       • Frank Oz Lets the Actors Do the Heavy Lifting


BACK TO POST 1 These classes were transcribed by Vladimir Nizhny, a pupil of Eisenstein’s, as the book Lessons with Eisenstein. I’m referencing Chapter Four “Mise-en-Shot.” I think this is Eisenstein at his most readable since his theories are spelled out through discussion with his students. Fascinating stuff. Long out of print, it can be found easily through Alibris.com.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “When Not to Edit, Pt 1: Eisenstein Meets Laurel & Hardy

  1. MW

    Eisenstein’s lesson to his class mirrors David Lean’s lesson to his first-time editor on “Lawrence of Arabia” – “always cut for a reason.” I’m paraphrasing, but you can find it in Kevin Brownlow’s excellent biography on Lean.

    • Yeah, it’s a simple adage, right? I also remember Eisenstein lecturing or writing in another place about how shots must “burst” into an edit, that the content of the shot (whether by action or dramatic force) must instigate the edit into another shot/place/time. It’s not as over-intellectual as it might seem; in fact, it’s a pretty passionate way to make a film. It certainly can make for intense filmmaking.

      • Boone

        Hello,

        Great, eloquent post on a subject about which I am passionate to the point of throwing molotov cocktails. I’m glad I stumbled in here from Kartina Richardson’s also-great Mirror blog.

        I routinely make similar, though less calm and reasoned, pleas for the return of editorial sanity, in articles and over at my blog:
        http://bigmediavandal.blogspot.com/2009/09/inglourious-snatch.html

        My Russian is Andrei Tarkovsky, who wrote:
        “But the deliberate joining of shots of uneven time-pressure must
        not be introduced casually; it has to come from inner necessity, from
        an organic process going on in the material as a whole. The minute
        the organic process of the transitions is disturbed, the emphasis of the
        editing (which the director wants to hide) starts to obtrude; it is laid
        bare, it leaps to the eye. If time is slowed down or speeded up
        artificially, and not in response to an endogenous development, if
        the change of rhythm is wrong, the result will be false and strident.
        Joining segments of unequal time-value necessarily breaks the
        rhythm. However, if this break is promoted by forces at work within
        the assembled frames, then it may be an essential factor in the
        carving out of the right rhythmic design. To take the various
        time-pressures, which we could designate metaphorically as brook,
        spate, river, waterfall, ocean — joining them together engenders that
        unique rhythmic design which is the author’s sense of time, called
        into being as a newly formed entity.”

        Lord.

      • Hi, Steven. Thanks for the kind words. I’m adding you to my Blog Roll and will reach out to you directly about your great post “Inglorious Snatch.”

        And that’s a Hell of a quote from Tarkovsky. Wordy, big words, intimidating–but everything he talks about is honesty, passion and rhythm–three things a films shouldn’t be without.

  2. Pingback: When Not to Edit, Pt 3: Frank Oz Lets the Actors Do the Heavy Lifting « Peel Slowly

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

  4. Pingback: When Not to Edit, Pt 5: The Kissy Face Workaround « Peel Slowly

  5. Pingback: When Not to Edit, Pt 6: Kubrick’s Breath Control « Peel Slowly

  6. Pingback: When Not to Edit, Pt 7: John Ford Refuses to Waste Film « Peel Slowly

  7. Pingback: When not to edit, part 8: Noé reviving Eisenstein |

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