Tag Archives: Editing

When Not to Edit, Pt 7: John Ford Refuses to Waste Film

The first edit that made me cry was about 50 minutes into John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). (I’ve written at length about how much of a film wuss I am.) I had just returned from my first semester of my sophomore year in film school. The editing class had been a real eye-opener, and I had become incredibly sensitive to the Value of the Cut. In fact, my viewing of the film was like that cliché of the kid who returns from the war and can’t see anything the same way he used to. This was like that.

The whole film was an epiphany (it was the first time I saw it and I hadn’t read the book), but this scene—when Pa Joad buys penny candy at a truck stop for his children–was when the scales tipped for me. It’s a typical Ford scene: wide or medium shots and very few edits. But somewhere in there, there’s an edit that’s perfectly timed. It isn’t much—nothing in the scene is terribly dramatic– but that edit is just enough to make sure we knew what every character was feeling. That one edit was all it took.

Considering I have such strong feelings for Ford’s command of our attention, it’s only fitting that I wrap up ths series with a post about him. Previously, I’ve been explicit about why (I think) some filmmakers made the tasteful, retrained choices they did, reasons that include building tension, creating humor, and so on, but those are just specifics. The truth is that in every instance I described, the unspoken reason the director did what he did is because he knew exactly what he was doing. And Ford’s body of work is a feast of such examples, so many that it’s easier for me to just write about him in general terms.

Of all the legends surrounding Ford (of which there are many), the most common is his claim to never shoot more than he deemed necessary, which in turn would limit the amount of tampering the studio could do after the film left his hands. Like many filmmakers of the studio system, he was given limited input in the editing 1 , yet Ford’s visualiztion of the finished film was so clear, he’d film the actors’ dialog only from the angles he wanted used.

For example, if he didn’t want John Wayne’s line, “That’ll be the day,” to be seen in a close up, he wouldn’t shoot that line in a close up. The average director—certainly ones that play it safe—shoots all the dialog from multiple angles, giving the editor options while cutting the film. Ford knew if he didn’t give the editor options, then he’d exert control over the finished product—even if he was already knee-deep in shooting his next film. 2

Fortunately, I have a handful of clips that explain this. (Although his opinions on filmmaking have been chronicled in a handful of cranky on-camera interviews he did in the autumn of his years, we’re lucky enough to have some other sources for his pearls of wisdom.)

Editor and director Robert Parrish’s long career began when was an apprentice editor on Ford’s The Informer (1935). In a 1992 documentary about Ford, Parrish shared several first-hand accounts about the director. This anecdote is about how he was given the opportunity to cut a scene for The Grapes of Wrath

What did Ford mean by “I don’t shoot anything I don’t want in the picture”? It sounds like a wrestler’s brag, a macho display of confidence. But here’s another anecdote from Parrish, this time explaining how Ford directed Victor McLaglen in The Informer (1935) and at the same time control what went into the camera…

That’s crazy. It takes a confident filmmaker to pull a stunt like that (although he had 22 years and 84 films under his belt when he directed that scene). And it’s certainly distracting to the actor (not that it hurt McLaglen any: he won the Best Actor Oscar for that performance).

But wait. There’s more. Here’s a scene from How Green Was My Valley (1941). 3   The set up: Because of the forbidden romance a young woman (Maureen O’Hara) has with a preacher (Walter Pidgeon), she marries another man. This is her wedding day, and as she stoically leaves the church, the heartbroken preacher watches from a distance. (This brief scene is followed by the audio commentary by Ford-biographer Joseph McBride. 4 )

And if that doesn’t sum up Ford’s attitude, then this last clip will. (In fact, it will sum up everything I’ve pushed in the all the essays in this series.) Robert Parrish once asked Ford how he directs actors, and this is what he said…

In other words, according to Ford, never make an edit unless you have a reason.


And that’s that. If I write anymore on this topic, I’ll only repeat myself. However, if you’d like a different take on the some of these ideas, check out this post by Steve Boone, over at Big Media Vandalism. His prose seems unchecked—I don’t mean sloppy, but he’s passionate and his ideas seem to fly out of his fingers.

I think we feel the same way about editing, but we discuss and dissect from opposites of the same coin. For example, in his post, he fearlessly criticizes contemporary filmmaking (with passing references to older films), whereas the seven essays I’ve written promote the films of yesteryear. (The youngest film I profiled is 22 years old!)


BACK TO POST 1 If the filmmaker’s films were successful, he’d be put on his next film ASAP. This is probably why Ford was able to do seven films between 1939 and 1941, an incredible run that included Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley.

BACK TO POST 2 This subversive technique didn’t always work for him, at least by the studio’s definition of “working,” and the most famous example of it will be the topic for a later post.

BACK TO POST 3 I think How Green Was My Valley rocks. For decades I’ve heard this film referred to derisively as “The Film That Beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture.” That massive simplification of this film kept me at an arm’s length from it, and I finally saw it a few years ago. What a boob I was for buying into the Kane Propaganda Machine.

BACK TO POST 4 For those who care, yes, it’s the same Joseph McBride who co-wrote the Corman-produced Rock ‘N’ Roll High School.


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When Not to Edit, Pt 6: Kubrick’s Breath Control

Although my feelings about Stanley Kubrick’s films are always in flux (which is great; he keeps me on my toes, even from the grave), there’s been one constant: I love Lolita. It’s aged well, in my opinion.

I saw this first when I was in high school, and even then there was one scene that distinctly affected me. (Well, most scenes unnerved and excited me, but this one was especially effective.) And the fact that one of its strengths is the length of its shots makes it a perfect entry for this series about great moments when filmmakers shun conventional coverage and editing. 1

Here’s the set-up: Tension between scholar Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and his teenage stepdaughter/lover Lolita (Sue Lyon) has been mounting, and when he discovers that she repeatedly skipped rehearsals for her school play, he brings her home to confront her.

(Note: Even though this scene occurs late in the film, I don’t think it will be a spoiler for those unfamiliar with the story and its outcome. Also, this is a longer scene than I normally post—4-and-a-half minutes—but to make it any shorter would be criminal and defeat my purpose.)

I’m telling you, to this day, this scene ties me up in knots. It’s the standoff the story’s been building toward. Prior to this, Humbert’s successfully removed all outside intrusions from his Perfect World: he’s become the legal guardian of the object of his desire; and he’s taken her to a place unfamiliar with either of them. But he can’t control Lolita’s raging teenage hormones and short attention span, and his world explodes from within. It turns on him in the worst possible way: this is a lover’s quarrel and a father-daughter dispute. (Whoa.)

This scene must have been a monster to stage and act, and when it comes to the shooting, Kubrick shrewdly favors “less is more”: Two shots, two edits, minimal camera movement.

The first shot is the longest (more than half the scene), a wide two shot that leaves plenty of  room for Lolita and Humbert to be together…

                        …or apart.

There’s no room for the actors to hide, and there’s no edits for them to hide behind. This best exemplifies the power that can be achieved by holding a shot for much longer than a viewer is expecting. Conventional coverage, such as close-ups or over-the-shoulder shots, would have told us when to look at one or the other. As it is, however, thanks to Kubrick’s unblinking eye, we choose who to watch—and see how one’s body language affects the other’s. At times, Humbert’s an angry, frustrated parent; at other times (such as when he plays with his pants, looking down), he’s a whipped lover. Meanwhile, we see Lolita’s stubbornness, poorly executed lies, and taunts (“You need help”).

The dramatic pauses are where the tension really mounts. Humbert accuses her: “What have you been doing these afternoons?” and Lolita spends 11 seconds stalling, hemming and hawing. And the whole time I’m holding my breath.

Once Humbert changes his strategy, he moves to her right, gets down on bended knee like a contrite lover, touching her as no father should. Now Kubrick edits to his medium two shot.

This allows us to see more of Lolita. Thanks to her garish stage make-up, she looks like a grown woman (or at least pretending to be one)—yet her behavior is completely infantile. As Humbert makes his shallow promises to her, she snaps her gum—and once again, my heart rate changes, my frustration mounts. I feel more empathy for Humbert than at any other point in the film (and when you’re empathizing with a groveling pedophile, you know Kubrick and Mason have done their job well).

The rest of the scene follows suit: Humbert flip-flopping from angry dad to jealous lover and Lolita having childish outbursts. Great, intense stuff.

I’m not saying anything new here about Lolita (is that even possible?), but I do think this scene accomplishes two things:

1. All of Lolita’s dynamic shine in this scene, making it one-stop shopping for an analysis of the story; and 2. Kubrick’s strengths as a filmmaker are on fire, including his skill with actors (which doesn’t get discussed as much as his other talents). As relevant to theme of my posts—the lack of editing—he really cooks: tremendous restraint; a respect for the actors relationship to each other; and an understanding of the average viewer’s internal clock: we expect edits, we expect close-ups, but Kubrick subverts by withholding those and letting the tension mount as this corrupt relationship plays out in front of our eyes.

It was such a damn pleasure writing this post (especially in the wake of my bitch-and-moan Inception post). The more I studied this scene, the better it got. The directing, writing, acting, production design, etc., all reached new heights in my estimation. This happens when I study Hitchcock’s films, too, and finding something new in repeated viewings (even after 25 years) is, to me, a mark of a true work of art.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Either John Frankenheimer or John Ford. No matter what, it’ll be about a director named John and his belief that if he’s done his job right, then he doesn’t need the damn edits.


BACK TO POST 1 Let’s see. As I see it McCarey did it for a sight gag; Ozu did it to unobtrusively put us in his characters’ world; Oz did to let his actors edit within the shot; Coppola did it to reveal his lead’s frame of mind; and Browning did it to show us a kiss and a reaction to the kiss at the same time.

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When Not to Edit, Pt 5: The Kissy Face Workaround

Tod Browning was a masterful director of the 20s and 30s, once most famous for directing the original Dracula (1931) and now best known for making the infamous Freaks (1932). The latter is a documentary packaged as a melodrama, with real sideshow freaks in the cast. It also has the shot that is the inspiration for this post, yet another instance where a director let a single shot tell his story, instead of relying on conventional coverage and edits. (Prior posts has highlighted shots in films by Leo McCarey, Ozu, Oz, and Coppola.)

But first some context. I imagine filming a passionate kiss has always been a drag for filmmakers. The idea of putting the faces of your characters that close together is dramatically sound but cinematographically dull. Sure, if the script has organically brought us to the kiss, then we, the audience, can do without seeing their faces for a few moments, and if the acting is spot on, we can feel the passion. But still I’m sure some directors (and actors and DPs) dislike the visual element; it has a way of leveling the playing field, whether it’s Bogart and Bergman, Woody and Diane, or Edward and Bella.

Since the camera can’t see either face completely, what’s a filmmaker to do? Traditionally, they rely on other ways of conveying the passion: the blocking of the actors (how they move into the kiss and out of it); their moans, pants and words uttered in between kisses; music, of course; multiple angles and edits; and camera movement (ah, the old “360° around the kissing couple” routine). In Notorious, Hitchcock famously dealt with a kiss in a single shot that was long, intricate, and incredibly clever.

It’s also been talked into the ground, so I’ll leave that shot alone.

On the other hand, given the same visual conundrum every filmmaker faces, here’s how Tod Browning staged it.

Freaks is about life in the circus and the code of honor among the pinheads, dwarves and others of the freak-class. Many within the circus regard them as “less than,” though to others, such as Phroso the Clown, they’re (relatively) normal people and even their peers. Frequently the film shows us how these people are as domestic and as we are—they can roll cigarettes, pour wine, etc,–regardless of how few limbs they have. In the case of the conjoined twins the Hilton Sisters, Violet and Daisy, we even see their suitors.

In this brief scene, their first in the film, the sisters approach Phroso. They talk about Daisy’s pending marriage and Phroso seizes the opportunity to flex their genetic empathy, so to speak…

The sisters are just bystanders in the film’s plot—not even a subplot—and in a later scene, Violet gets engaged. Naturally, a newly-engaged couple will kiss and this is how Browning shows it…

An uncommon solution, but it always takes my breath away. And although this shot seems like a gimmicky excuse for a post, it stands up under scrutiny, with plenty of pointers for filmmakers.

For starters, use what ya got. If you have gifted people in your film, use those gifts to your advantage. Repeatedly in the film, Browning turns his casts’ unusual skills and features to his advantage, both visually and narratively. In this instance, he found a way to show his characters uniqueness and how their lives might be—and that it’s really quite wonderful.

Secondly, Browning gives us context. Long before this kiss happens, he sets up the payoff. The brief scene with Phroso touching Violet’s arm is played off as a parlor trick, not even a plot point, but only 17 minutes later we get the kiss and Daisy’s joy and know exactly why she feels the way she does.

Lastly, it’s simply a beautiful shot. Here’s how I know: I showed this film to my wife, Debbie, a few years ago. She’s by no means a film geek—she doesn’t get hung up on cinematic style or form—and Freaks really isn’t her cup of tea. She was rolling with it, somewhere between repulsed and bored, when this kiss happened. Her reaction was palpable and positive (kind of a gasp or an audible smile). It didn’t matter whether Daisy’s bliss was genuine or if she was acting (I doubt conjoined twins really do feel each other’s sensations as such); it was something Debbie had never seen, a moment of perfect visual storytelling, all the more impressive since she had not put the film or its filmmaker on a pedestal. In other words, its eloquence caught her off-guard.

Like I said, I don’t know if the Hilton Sisters really had this kind of symbiosis, but this is another example of Browning’s attitude toward “freaks”: they’re well-adjusted, domestic, special (in a good way), honorable, very human, and members of a community that we should respect. (Gooble Gobble!)

Compared with my other posts in this series, Browning’s Kiss is perhaps the most unusual in the bunch (maybe closest in intent to Ozu’s static wide-shot), but I’m certain of one thing: if there were even one more cinematic ingredient (i.e. edits, coverage, a close-up of Daisy’s face, a music cue, even a dolly in) it wouldn’t be as powerful as it is. He cast it well, set the stage, and stood back. After that, it was all up to us.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Kubrick knows how to make us hold our breath.


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When Not to Edit, Pt 4: Coppola’s Eavesdropping Camera

Time for another post discussing an instance when a director chose a sustained shot as opposed to a more conventional, edit-filled approach. Today is all about Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the camera in one scene in The Conversation.

My prior examples in this series (Laurel & Hardy’s The Finishing Touch; Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus; and Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) were static shots, with all the movement occurring via the blocking of the actors. Today’s example broadens the scope a little, since the camera does move, yet it’s the way it moves that makes it note-worthy. Coppola does something I call character-driven filmmaking, which is when a character’s emotions dictate the mechanics of the film, such as the editing, the lighting, and, in this case of this entry, the shooting. (I wrote about this before in my post about the editing in Silkwood.)

The Conversation (1974) is about surveillance expert Harry Caul. It’s a 70s character study disguised as paranoid thriller: Harry eavesdrops for a living but, not surprisingly, lives in fear of being watched or even noticed, preferring solitude.

In this scene, which happens early in the film, Harry enters his apartment at the end of the day. He checks his mail, calls his landlady, and takes off his pants. Such a straightforward scene could be shot and cut several different ways, all expanding our understanding of Harry. These possibilities include:

• a handful of medium shots where Harry’s décor is visible in the background, each with Harry in the frame as he walks from room to room
• a dolly shot either in front of him (camera dollying backwards) or behind him, showing only his back; in both cases his décor would be visible on the sides of the frames
• a slightly more esoteric approach: static medium shots or close-ups of parts of his apartment, without Harry in frame

So how does Coppola shoot it? Well, I think when a filmmaker is crafting a scene, he or she needs to constantly ask, “What information does the audience need to know right now?” Here’s how Coppola answers that question…

I love this shit. Coppola’s tableau is wide and sparse. Harry lives simply, so the director foregoes showing us his apartment in detail and instead lets the camera behave as an extension of Harry’s state-of-mind, which is one of surveillance. In fact, the first time he leaves the frame, he appears to be consciously trying to get away from the camera.

Gratefully, Francis Ford Coppola did an audio commentary for this film, so I can let him speak for himself. Here’s a minute-long clip of his explanation of this shot and its style:

Couldn’t be much clearer than that, could he? It’s nice to hear him say that, but, truthfully, when I first saw this film in the 80s, it was crystal clear to me.

(For what it’s worth, I think the lone CU in the scene—a generic birthday card from his bank—is so sad it only reinforces our understanding of Harry’s isolation. Instead of showing us one of Harry’s personal belongings, Coppola shows us the exact opposite: what could be more impersonal than a form birthday card?)

Obviously, such a self-conscious shot could be perceived as gimmicky, but if you haven’t seen the film, believe me: Coppola successfully uses this style for maximum effect, abetted enormously by Gene Hackman’s performance.

I could go on and on about this film—I freakin’ love it—but I’ll leave it at that. However, if you’re interested in a great essay about The Conversation, I recommend this post at Precious Bodily Fluids.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Director Tod Browning thinks freaks work best without too many edits.

By the way, the DVD for The Conversation is unique: It not only has a full-length commentary by the director, it has one by the editor. Why? you ask.

Those familiar with the history of this film are aware of the uncomfortable relationship between Coppola and editor Walter Murch. The director had to leave the project prematurely (to begin pre-production onThe Godfather, Part 2) and left a good deal of The Conversation in the hands of the editor. Murch’s changes to the structure of the film were radical enough for some to claim he saved the picture, and it seems it’s been a sore spot for both men ever since. Case in point: for the aforementioned DVD, they each say surprisingly little about the other’s input on the film.

Anyway, I had planned the second half of this post to dissect that seemingly rocky relationship, but, alas, that will have to wait for another post.


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When Not to Edit, Pt 3: Frank Oz Lets the Actors Do the Heavy Lifting

In my prior posts about instances when filmmakers refrained from editing unnecessarily, I wrote about Laurel & Hardy holding a shot for the full impact of a joke and how Yasujiro Ozu’s unobtrusive camera enabled a documentary-like use of space and performances. And today it’s about a shot in Frank Oz’s 1988 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a shot where the blocking of the actors replaces the needs for edits.

This is going to be a short post—and this shot may not be the best example of my point, to be perfectly frank—but with the director himself explaining it so succinctly in his commentary, it’s hard for me to pass up.

Here’s the set-up: Laurence Jamieson (Michael Caine) and Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) are two conmen duking it out in the South of France. A turf war. By this scene, their animosity reaches its crest, and they realize that neither is going to back down. Here’s the clip, followed immediately by the same scene with Oz’s commentary.

“This is what the movie’s about.”1   Accomplished in a single shot. Well, sustaining it for thirty seconds and having three “shots” in one, ending in an extreme close up, certainly makes it unignorable to the audience that something important is happening.

And while their blocking is a little stagy (i.e. Michael Caine stepping up that last step into his ECU), I think that when it comes to traditional, male territorial behavior, it does matter who’s standing on the highest step. In other words, I’d believe that these characters would end up at the top of a staircase, staring each other down.

So, does Oz prescribe to Eisenstein’s dare to filmmakers to stage as much as possible in a single shot, to maximize the “frame” and its space?2  Hell yeah. It’s clear from Oz’s entire commentary that he gives this kind of thing a lot of thought, whether it’s for a comedic or dramatic purpose. (More below on that commentary.) Moreover, his Director of Photography was Michael Ballhaus. Before the German DP ever met Oz, he was mentored in his youth by director Max Ophüls; and shot sixteen Fassbinder films in the 70s and three Scorsese films in the 80s. In other words, Ballhaus is no slouch when it comes to use of space, and Oz relied heavily on Ballhaus’s sage advice. The result is one of the more intelligently-shot comedies of the 80s.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Francis Coppola’s use of the camera as an extension of his character’s state of mind.

By the way, I had originally planned to write at length about Oz’s commentary for this film, but I’m saving that for another post. It’s one of my favorite commentaries. Oz intelligently illustrates ways to direct comedy, as well as thoroughly explaining the necessary collaborative process, especially when it comes to Steve Martin. In fact, the post will be about Steve. (Also, I was lucky enough to be the session producer for this commentary, and I’ll write about how that went.) Be on the lookout for it.


BACK TO POST 1 While I think it’s cool that he points out that “this is what the movie’s about,” it is a little troublesome that this happens at the film’s 45 minute mark. I’m not gonna lie to you: I love Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but I do wish it were a reel shorter.

BACK TO POST 2 In the early 30s, when Eisenstein taught film direction at the Moscow State Cinema Institute, he challenged his class to shoot an entire scene in a single static shot. 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 strongly believed that a filmmaker must exhaust all possibilities within the shot before resorting to an edit. He called this mise-en-shot (“staging in the shot”).


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When Not to Edit, Pt 2: Ozu’s Unobtrusive Camera

Two weeks ago I did my first post in a series about instances when directors chose to use a single shot to tell a story, even though a filmmaker’s instinct might be to use several shots. I referenced a lecture by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Although he was typically a supporter, promoter and innovator of montage editing,1   he taught the principle of storytelling-via-a-single-shot, which he called mise-en-shot (“staging in the shot”).

Today I’m going to focus on a clip from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus, a 1931 silent domestic comedy-drama. Ozu was a Japanese director who made approximately fifty films between 1927 and 1962. Many focused on family life and the day-to-day struggles between the generations. I’m certainly no expert on him—I’ve seen very few of his films, sorry to say—but everything I’ve seen has keen insight into human nature, frequently gentle but rarely melodramatic.

Tokyo Chorus is the story of Shinji Okajima, a young husband and father in contemporary Japan, which was in the thick of the Depression. This is an early scene, one that introduces the family. As Okajima is preparing to go to work, he and his wife discuss his salary bonus and he interacts with his son and daughter.

I love this scene. It’s chockfull of moments, mannerisms, and feelings. I don’t know much about Japanese cinema—much less their silent cinema—but this strikes me as more realistic looking than your average American film from the same period. The production design, costumes and even the performances seem less stagy that what I’d expect from its American counterpart.2

As for the shooting, Ozu uses his share of conventional angles one would expect in a narrative, such as this angle/reverse angle exchange…

…but later in the scene, there a there’s a single comic shot that relies on blocking for its effect. It’s the shot immediately after the son (unnamed in the film) breaks some of Okajima’s records…

This is great narrative comedic staging and directing since the timing of the joke is decided by the blocking: we register Okajima’s disappointment and, in lieu of a couple cuts and close-ups, the son steps out, delivering the smile that makes the joke.

This is cute but not what I’m referring to when illustrating how Ozu uses a single short for maximum effect. That shot is, of course, the final one in the scene, the one that stikes me as the one most like a documentary. The camera is static, low to the ground and unobstrusive. I see three-and-a-half shots in one:

“Shot” #1 is Tsuma (the wife) on the tatami mat, and it’s framed for her (which explains why the camera is low to the ground). Okajima enters frame right, though we can only see him from mid-torso down. While this is a perfect place for a conventional cut-on-action to a medium of him, Ozu holds his ground.

“Shot” #2 is Tsuma sending her husband off to work, with only the lower half of their bodies visible. Ozu foregoes shots of their faces in exchange for seeing the wife caringly brush her husband’s blazer, the final touch before sending him on his way.

“Shot” #3 is their departure, a family parading by the camera like a family of ducks, which ends beautifully with the camera already perfectly framed for Miyoko, the daughter.

The “half shot” is the 2-and-a-half seconds after Tsuma leaves the frame and before the children enter…

This is a very atypical-Hollywood “dead air” shot, where the audience is left in the dark. My guess is that for a Hollywood film, the walking would have been choreographed so that the procession would have been tidy, rhythmic, and uniform. However, Ozu and his unobtrusive camera let the action happen at a more realistic pace, like a vérité documentary, and he doesn’t worry if we lose our bearings for a moment. Hell, there’s always their home to look at, isn’t there?

So, does Ozu prescribe to Eisenstein’s dare to filmmakers to stage as much as possible in a single shot, to maximize the “frame” and its space? Kinda, though I don’t think that was his goal. I believe he searched for the one place to put the camera that would give him the maximum number of shots. This kept his budget down and allowed his actors to move organically and realistically within the space. And that’s as good a reason as any.

Tokyo Chorus is currently available on Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies, a 3 DVD set by Eclipse, Criterion’s “bargain” series. It also includes his next film, I Was Born, But…, another domestic comedy. That will be playing in NYC at the IFC Center for two weeks, beginning June 25. As these films rarely screen, I highly recommend it.

Next up in the When Not to Edit series, Frank Oz will make an appearance on Peel Slowly, to talk about using a static camera to stage comedy.

Add’l posts in this series:

       • Frank Oz Lets the Actors Do the Heavy Lifting


BACK TO POST 1 A perfect example of Eisenstein’s affinity for montage if this clip from his 1929 film The General Line. Thanks to an abundance of quick edits, he shows us the kinetic energy in a roomful of peasant farmers witnessing for the first time a creamer in action. (Is it my imagination or is it awfully sexual?)

By the way, the version I saw with English subtitles had the phrase “It creams!” for this shot. Whoa.

BACK TO POST 2 And the children’s actions and reactions ring true, whether it’s the son mimicking the father trying in vain to repair the broken records or the siblings choosing to play with those broken records instead of the ball that caused the problems in the first place.


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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.


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.


Filed under Film

The Godfather, The Big Chill…The Cutaway

Picture an edit room, with a filmmaker, an editor and a lot of cigarette smoke. They watch a scene again and again, and finally the filmmaker says, “There’s something missing. The timing’s all wrong.” And that’s when the editor comes to the rescue, and for this post, we’ll say it’s a cutaway that saves the day.

In film terminology a cutaway is “the interruption of a continuously filmed action by inserting a view of something else. It is usually, although not always, followed by a cut back to the first shot” (Wiki). There are many reasons a filmmaker and editor would settle on using a cutaway, sometimes to mask a problem in the shooting, other times to help tell the story cinematically. Many current TV shows, such as 30 Rock and Family Guy, use cutaways as a form of punchline. (Quickly becoming the lamest kind of joke on TV, I think.) My favorite reason for a cutaway is to help the pace, to allow the viewer to absorb information the way the filmmaker intended.

Here’s some examples…

The Godfather (dir. Francis Coppola, editors William Reynolds and Peter Zinner) has a fantastic cutaway early in the film, when Michael is telling Kay about his father’s relationship with singer Johnny Fontaine. It happens right after Michael says, “That’s a true story.”

Dramatically, he’s dropped a bomb, both for Kay and for us, and I think the cutaway to Johnny, which does three things. First, Michael’s pause is now incredibly long (11 seconds!), which is a hint of the Michael to Come: silent, calculating. Second, even though Kay is not looking at Johnny Fontaine, she’s clearly confused and stunned and re-thinking everything she ever thought of him, so why not see Johnny at that moment? And third, ideally, we’re doing something similar: we’ve been given our first taste of how brutal it might get and need a beat to process it.

How would it have played otherwise? Since we’ve all seen the film so many times (admit it), it’s hard to say. But here’s a simulation, the end of that scene with the cutaway removed

Next is something early on in The Big Chill (dir. Lawrence Kasdan, editor Carol Littleton). Meg (Mary Kay Place) and Nick (William Hurt) are talking about their friend Alex, who’s recently killed himself.

I expect that in the edit room they realized this scene had two endings: Nick’s joke and Meg’s comment. The cutaway allows Nick’s quip to get a healthy laugh from the audience as well as establish how dark his humor is. But Meg’s line is just as important. The cutaway to the street—not to the interior of another car and another conversation, mind you—lets us process each piece of information equally.

The last sample is from left field. God’s Step Children (dir. Oscar Micheaux, editors Patricia Rooney and Leonard Weiss) is a low-budget 1938 all-black-cast melodrama. Micheaux made his films outside of the studio system, and this was his 38th film since 1910.

The plot concerns Naomi, a light-skinned black woman who can pass for white. She and her brother Jimmy are unaware that she was adopted and are tortured by their attraction to each other. Here’s a scene where they see each for the first time in years. Since most of you haven’t sees this (few have), I’ve edited out the cutaway, to enable a before-and-after demonstration. Pay attention to their kiss.

OK.  Now, look at the end of that scene with the cutaway:

I know it’s crude filmmaking, but humor me and think of what that cutaway accomplishes: That innocent, split-second kiss is now 5 seconds long, which makes much more of an impression of forbidden love than any of the writing, acting or shooting.

So whether it was a New York edit room in the 70s, a Hollywood cutting room in the 80s, or God-knows-where in the 30s—I think the same thing occurred: the filmmaker’s point was crystallized thanks to the cutaway.


Filed under Film

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

Keaton on the Cutting Edge

(Click to see at a higher resolution)

Today I offer a rare and precious photograph of filmmaker Buster Keaton. I’ve only ever seen it in one place (described below), and it is seemingly a still taken during the shoot for his 1924 film Sherlock, Jr. (I’ve come to this conclusion since there’s a projector behind him, to the right, that’s seen in the film.)

I’ve been mesmerized by this poster since 1989, and I still can’t figure out why. Is it because of his intense profile?

Or because the “COMEDY” label is cryptically lifted up a little? Is that on purpose?

And how about the scissors in his hands, jaws open?

And I frequently stare at the detail of the bottle of FILM CEMENT next to a film rewind, which isn’t very different from the gear I used in film school.

And what is it for? Why was this picture taken? Is it an outtake from the mind-blowing Sherlock, Jr? (For those familiar with the film, it actually could figure into its imaginative plot.) Pictures of filmmakers from the silent era, in the editing room, with film in their hands, are as rare as hen’s teeth, though it’s pretty clear this is a set and not a real edit room. (More accurately, it’s a projectionist’s bench.)

Anyway, I’ve kept it in as many edit rooms as possible for 20 years, as a good luck charm, a source of inspiration. And at one point, sadly, it was almost lost to me forever. If you care to know that story, please read on…

In early 1989, I took a life-changing course in college. It was Silent Film Comedy, taught by the brilliant Tom Gunning. Unlike his other classes which had upwards of 40 official students (and half as many again monitoring), this had only eight students. All young men. And we’d gather on Thursday mornings and sit in a huge auditorium. Tom would enlighten us with tales of Chaplin and Keaton and others, then the lights would go down, the projector would start, and we’d laugh, laugh, laugh. And Tom would be laughing the loudest.

A few months later, in a completely unrelated event, I saw magazine ad for a film archive (a stock house where you could license footage of just about anything for your documentary) and called the 800 number for a free catalog. When it arrived, I was thrilled to discover it was a 16×20 poster folded into a catalog shape. On one side was the info, on the other was this picture. I got several more free catalogs and passed them out like so many nickels and dimes.

By the late 90s, I had lost my last copy, between gigs. In a panic, I called the archive and asked if they had any more of their 1989 catalogs, one they could spare or sell to me. The woman on the phone said, in typical New York fashion, that no, they didn’t keep such things. I said, “But you’re an archive.”

I begged and cajoled long enough that the woman finally gave up and agreed to take a look. She asked for my name and number. When I said my name, she did a 180. Turns out we had been neighbors at my first NYC apartment in Long Island City, five years earlier.

A few days later, a fresh copy arrived. (Whew.)

So now it’s framed in my office, and I still haven’t seen it anywhere else. The other night, I carefully removed it from its frame, scanned it in six chunks and stitched it together, just for this blog. For all the post people, Keaton fans and film lovers out there.

Perhaps Buster, with his scissors cocked like Harry Callahan’s .44 magnum, will inspire you, too.


Filed under Comedy, Film, Plucked from Obscurity