A Long Take on The Lost Art of Film Editing

HD for Indies and DVGuru both linked to Jessica Winter's Boston Globe article on "the Lost Art of Film Editing" today. I don't have an axe to grind with Jessica Winter. I enjoyed her article, and I agree with her lamenting the seemingly lost days of the long take in American cinema. But I think the reasoning that informs the article is a little off. I hope you'll pardon the long take (pun intended) on the article. I freely admit to having made a "slow" movie or two, so I guess you could say I have some investment in the issue. Are movies choppier and choppier these days? Definitely. I think we can all agree on that. And if you don't agree, I'm sure if someone wanted to they could probably prove this by some sort of Bordwellian analysis that compared average cuts per second of films film the 50s and the 00s, respectively. (Sorry, folks. It ain't gonna be me.)

Yet the article's thesis is that faster cutting is the result of:

A) the developments of digital technology B) filmmakers are transitioning from TV.

I think there are other reasons, and I'm not sure the ones above are even necessarily true.

The first part of argument "A" is an argument most of us in film have heard before. It's the "Romance of The Olde Ways" argument.

True, digital technology has unquestionably made the process of making a physical splice undoubtedly faster. But cutting faster (taking less time to construct a movie) does not produce faster cutting (edits per second).

Just because film editing is time consuming, if someone wanted a lot of cuts, they could always do it with film. Eisenstein's Potemkin, the ending of Bonnie and Clyde and Stan Brakhage's Window Water Baby Moving are just three examples of films that feature extended sequences of lightning fast cutting. All were cut on film well before the invention of the personal computer, much less Final Cut Pro.

Just think: If I replace my old fashioned hammer with a pneumatic nail driver, you know what? I'm still pounding nails, and I'm not going to hammer any more or fewer than I need to in order to build what I'm building. I'm not going to redesign the bookcase I'm building because, hey, I can hammer faster. Is there anyone out there that thinks this way?

The other part of argument "A" is also iffy. Winter argues that new technology like DVDs create a world where films are edited more and more by committee, and therefore are forced to be "punched up" with quick editing.

First, I simply don't know how one can quantify that films are made "by committee" more today than they were in the past. Still, even if it is true that more films are made by committee, I fail to see how that accounts for the domination of fast cutting in movies today. Fast cutting in movies can be seen in the imitation-Tarantino shorts that one finds in intro film student classes, on the internet, and elsewhere... yet what committee is behind the fast cutting here? The answer, of course, is that there is no committee. The films were made in complete isolation by filmmakers playing a cinematic version of air guitar.

To me, this suggests that there's something bigger here going on. But first, to argument "B", which amounts to "Blame Television."

This is a seductive argument if, for no other reason, than the fact that television is such a wasteland. And it makes some sense, at least at first: Television is a medium in which the network -- and therefore the director and editor, who almost always answer to the network -- must constantly keep your attention. If they don't keep your attention, you change the channel. So rapid cutting is prescribed (and proscribed) as a solution. Lots of cuts = eyes staying busy = staying on channel. Sounds good so far.

But once directors make the leap from television and music videos to film they're not cutting for television any longer. Surely at some point all but the densest of them (and they do exist, I guess) understand that they needn't continue cutting for an audience with a remote control in their hands. Now their audience has, theoretically at least, chosen to watch their work in darkened theater, or at least at home on a DVD player. Spike Jonze's films don't feature especially fast cutting, and he's from the dreaded MTV school, so to speak. So what gives?

I'm not saying Winter's got things all wrong, but I think there are other issues at work. Here are three. I'm sure there are more.

First, there is the issue of inexperience. Winter bemoans a scene in Little Miss Sunshine that's cut all to hell. I've seen the movie and, though I didn't have the same reaction, I see her point. (If it were me, I'd have probably cited as an example the early kitchen scene in Junebug) Anyway, I think both scenes are a case of first-time feature filmmakers still finding their way through covering a scene. (By the way, I'm in no way saying I'm above this, superior, or anything of the sort. I'm sure I'll continue to save myself through coverage for as long as I'm making films.) You might want to play from the master, but you realize that you've under-directed the actors, or under-written the scene, or whatever. Even if it's choppy, cutting can solve some bigger problems. I say this from personal experience.

A second reason is that when you're making an independent film you shoot fast, you get what you think you need, and then you move on quickly. Sometimes you don't have time to nail the long take, however much you'd like to.You hope it works in the editing room and you do the best you can with what you have.

To me, either of these two reasons (and they're related) could account for the moment that Winter discusses in Little Miss Sunshine. The filmmakers are first timers and, though their budget must have been far greater than anything I've worked with, I'm sure they didn't have all the time in the world to shoot scene take after take so every scene could play in long take. And, beyond Little Miss Sunshine, I think these reasons are compelling arguments for some increase in cutting in recent years. More and more films are made independently on modest budgets and, likewise, more and more films are debut films.

As for cases like Miami Vice (or whatever other movie you want to supply) well, I think there's a simpler issue here: The stories we're being told these days at the movies are getting worse and worse. Indeed, slowing down the cutting of practically any studio movie released this summer would reveal what vacuous and boring spectacles these films really are. It's not that they're "bad"; it's that there's hardly any content at all. (This is just as true of the Tarantino fanboy knock offs, too.) Editing is a way to distract us from this. It has become Spectacle, especially in the films without any special effects to otherwise distract us. And, as Aristotle reminds us in the Poetics, Spectacle is the least interesting, and least essential, element of drama. Considered in this way, faster cutting is a kind of decadence, which David Mamet would argue, ultimately leads to obscenity (see Mamet's "Countercultural Architecture" from On Directing Film or "Decadence" from Writing in Restaurants).

Finally, I don't know if this is a reason for fast cutting, or if it's just a related effect, but it is sad (to me) that even in film schools young filmmakers are rarely exposed to "slow" films, like Carl Dreyer's later works, or Tarkovsky's, or Ozu's. When they are, it's often in film history classes and provided with apologies from their professors. I guess I fall into the "apologies" camp, but I figure it's better than not showing the stuff. I can say, though, that I've shown Ordet to my students, albeit with some preparation (which ultimately boils down to a warning that "This is no Jerry Bruckheimer film"), and at least a handful truly appreciate it. They have come up after class and privately thanked me for showing it, in fact. It is some consolation, I suppose, that some of these students wish to be editors.