Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Best of 2006: Film Editing

Timing is everything, in movies as in life, which is why film editing is one of the most important arts in cinema—perhaps the most important art—and yet, editors get precious little respect. The scriptwriters for the Oscars always foist upon the presenters some twee little quip about how a good editor would make the telecast shorter, just as the Cinematography presenters are perennially obligated to make a dumb joke about how the principal job of a director of photography is to make the actors look pretty. In reality, good editors are like ideal gallery docents, smoothly directing you to look at just the right images for just the right amount of time, and in the most suggestive, interesting order.

They are also brilliant trainers, regulating the pace and energy of the film, and they are shrewd, observant psychologists. I'm sure I've mentioned it on this site before, but Tim Squyres, the usual editor of Ang Lee's movies (though not, for whatever reason, on Brokeback) once told a Cornell audience that his first Oscar nomination came, inevitably, for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was by far the easiest of Lee's films to cut: all the transitions between action and dialogue were right there in the screenplay, and most of the conversations were two-handers... whereas, in something like The Ice Storm or Sense and Sensibility, you've often got four or six or eight actors in a scene, all of them experiencing tremors and doubts and suppressed excitements, or harboring valuable knowledges that other characters don't have. To whom do you cut? Should the excitement of secrecy or the force of repression dominate the scene?

Editors are also poets: they cut expression down to its barest essentials, coordinating the meter of a film to its content and imagery, and hopefully furnishing us with something illuminating and special. These five definitely provided those kinds of experiences for me, but as you'll see from the copious runners-up, there was lots of great editing going around in 2006.



Blogger tim r said...

I promise this isn't name-dropping, as it has a point, but I met Sacha Baron Cohen the other night at a London awards dinner and he was really effusive on the subject of Borat's editing. It took three full-time editors seven or eight months to cut that movie, you know? And it's not just a question of what they kept in and left out from a vast mountain of available material, but the literally split-second calibrations governing whether individual scenes and punchlines clicked or not. As an example, he cited that shot of the painting (was it a rabbi?) in the old Jewish couple's home, which for ages wasn't getting a laugh in test screenings. He went back in, took out two frames, put Borat's choked reaction in a beat earlier, and, hey presto, a big laugh. I'd swap Oscar's Adapted Screenplay citation for Best Editing in a heartbeat.

PS. I met Harmony Korine! I met Harmony Korine! He was sane and really very sweet and kept telling me to check out The Wire.

3:14 AM, February 06, 2007  
Blogger Yaseen Ali said...

I am amazed at how much you are able to retain from these movies - the level of detail and specificity present in your commentary is incredible. How on earth do you do it? Either you have a great memory or you take extensive notes.

Share your secret.

9:51 AM, February 06, 2007  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: How exciting! I actually thought Borat could have used another pass at the editing to make some of the sequences (the frat boys, the antique store) work a little better as comedy, but I have all kinds of back-and-forth misgivings about that movie. The editing sure worked like a charm in the Pamela Anderson sequence, though. And I do love tales of frame-by-frame editing magic. (The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing sorta fails in its aspirations to be the Visions of Light of editing, but it still has some good, well-illustrated anecdotes of this variety.)

@Ali: What's weird to me is that when I do take notes, as I tried to get in the habit of doing again this year, I almost never wind up referring to them later (although I broke this rule for my Black Dahlia review, and I can see that it helped my writing). I also rarely have the urge to write about a film that I've already jotted notes about, as though that act itself has satisfied my urge. Do not tell my students this!

For some of these awards write-ups, I've certainly availed myself of DVDs—Clean, Block Party, and Half Nelson are all sitting in my house—but I'll also confess to some Rain Man tendencies in these regards. When I'm taken with something in a movie, I'll remember it. I forget plot points all the time, and I am the worst person in the world at remembering how movies end (who lives and dies at the end of The Proposition? I couldn't tell you...), but I seize on images, edits, details.

Meanwhile, I'm agog, admiring, and a little puzzled whenever anyone can tell me the make of a car by looking at it, or identify flowers or birds by looking/hearing/smelling them, or match academics to the places where they teach. When friends tell me, "I'll be the one in the blue Honda," I'm like, who could possibly remember that, or know what a Honda looks like? It's funny how some things are second-nature to all of us, and other things are totally impossible to retain.

2:37 AM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was a wee kid, I used to be befuddled all the time when the Oscar category for Best Editing came up. I was, like, "What do they do? Put the film together? That's not hard work." It took me a couple of years later for me to realize that directors didn't film their sequences in a strict, chronological fashion :)

Walter Murch once said that editing was equivalent to the act of holding an overfull small cup (or something along the lines of it) and trying not to spill it. Well, maybe that's not the most eloquent line of all, but I really like that metaphor.

5:17 AM, February 07, 2007  

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