Tag Archives: Eisenstein

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.
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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.

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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

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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.

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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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