P:O.V. No.6 - The Art of Film Editing

On Editing

Mark Le Fanu

Cinema has two beginnings: the first, when the photograph originally budged, the limbs uncoiled, the human being walked, the single spool of film flickered into life - on whatever occasion we choose to date this (whether in 1893 or 1895).

Yet the second, in a way equally momentous, beginning of cinema could be said to follow some time later - if we want to date it, let us say in the years immediately prior to 1900 - when two strips of film were first spliced together to form: what? Another mode of narrative? Or maybe narrative itself - film narrative - for the first time? Stories may indeed be told without editing - a little one-minute gem like the Lumière Brothers' L'Arroseur Arrosé tells its story perfectly - but in an important way the beginning of editing is the beginning of cinema itself.

Still, we have to ask ourselves, what is so "momentous" about this joining or splicing that impels us to pause on it and puzzle out its meaning? After all, in the theatre we are used to the division of the play into acts which operate through a principle of ellipsis. Thus, at the end of a given scene, the lights go down, the set is invisibly whisked away and, when the lights go up again, we are in a different place (surely by magic), while time has moved on, sometimes by decades (this too is magic).

But the splice, in cinema, has more dialectical properties. It serves not merely as a pause or cæsura - something that separates or provides a brief breathing space - but on the contrary something that joins: "syntactic" in the root sense of the word. And if we are talking about magic, the magic of cinema is surely sensed to lie here: in the strange alchemy arising out of the juxtaposition of images - images that cut through, or rather dispense with, pages of theatrical dialogue to achieve their effect instantaneously: a subliminal effect in the best instances, too swift to be put into words, though when we do take the trouble to find words for the experience we see that what we are dealing with is the imagistic equivalent of a metaphor. Such and such a thing, says the film, is "like" something else - in ways that we might never have thought of; only once there (placed there, by chance or by the genius of the editor) understood as rich, suggestive, inevitable or (when it needs to be) satirical.

The theorisation of these properties of filmic syntax is the legacy of the Russians: Kuleshov for example (in the famous "Kuleshov effect")[1] and above all, of course, the great Eisenstein. These men and their colleagues practised this sort of cinema ("the cinema of attractions", "the cinema of shocks") and wrote about it extensively. Yet to mention such names at all, since they lived so long ago (in the epoch, precisely, of the silent cinema) is to wonder if their conclusions are still valid. Perhaps it was just because, for the first 30 years of its life, cinema had no spoken word that the juxtaposition of images in the way we are describing was sensed to be so fundamental. Our enquiry touches here upon something that I will revert to below: the fear, that is, that the very special form of editing patented by the Russians as "montage" is, or was, merely a passing episode in the evolution of cinema, giving way in due course to the coming of sound.

I am not sure how to answer this fully. An annual Oscar is offered by Hollywood for Best Editing, and when one tries to pin down the qualities of a really well-edited mainstream film - one of Scorsese' s movies, for example, cut by Thelma Schoonmaker (GoodFellas, maybe, or Casino) - one sees that the skill referred to is not so much montage, in the Russian sense of the orchestration or controlled dissonance of images, but rather the ability to handle pace creatively; more simply put, to imbue the film in question with a fine and vigorous rhythm.

Such skill where it exists doesn't rule out a more radical style of ellipsis - something closer to the Russian model in density and complexity of image placement. But it could be argued that the home for editing in this richer sense - the sense referred to of "montage of attractions" - is no longer (if it ever was) in mainstream fiction. We may be more likely to find it in certain dense personal meditations - half documentary, half film diary - of a few privileged auteurs: Orson Welles for example (F for Fake surely one of the most "edited" films of all time), or Godard, or Wim Wenders (a diary film like Tokyo-ga rather than his regular feature films). And we could add a few more names at this point: Johan van der Keuken from Holland, Chris Marker, Adam Curtis (from the BBC), Frederick Wiseman, Dusan Makavejev (incomparable montage of WR:Mysteries of the Organism), Agnès Varda, Alain Cavalier, Alain Resnais...

A handful of examples, then, some of them very well-known, others a little more obscure.[2] What binds such artists together is that editing in their films seems to be used as an instrument of thought, not merely as guarantee of rhythm. Maybe the distinction sounds slippery - for all good art is thoughtful; and there is no monopoly (how could there be?) on the artistic means used to achieve depth and effectiveness. Yet it is one aspect of thought, at least, to be alert; to cut through; to surprise; to forge connections; just as it is the peculiar property of the work of the directors just cited that we seem to see these connections being minted, as it were, in front of our eyes.

An example would seem to be called for. But before I give one, maybe it's apposite to recall that "producing examples" is not always as easy as it looks. In film criticism, then, as opposed to the literary variety, there is no such thing as a quote. The most the critic can do is to précis: that is, to reproduce, or attempt to reproduce in words the effect of the extract he is talking about. He (I mean "she" of course in the appropriate context) may use stills or photograms to aid the evocation, but until (which may not, after all be too long in the future) written elucidation can be combined with push-button or CD-Rom access to the relevant extract, commentary about film is condemned to remain vague and approximate. A limitation especially onerous here, it may be thought, where the whole force of the discussion focuses on the elegance of swift solutions, and of split-second timing.

To return to our argument, and the example left hanging in the air. "Split-second timing" is one of the masteries of the elusive French director Chris Marker. After the success of Sans Soleil (1982), Le Tombeau d'Alexandre (English title The Last Bolshevik), which came out in 1992, reaffirmed the French documentarist as one of our finest contemporary film essayists. The movie in question is a meditation on the life of a little-known but important Soviet director named Alexander Medvedkin, who, while faithful in broad terms to communist ideology, made films in the twenties and thirties which, seen in a certain light, are distinctively subversive of the system. (Happiness (1934) seems to be the best known of these.)

Marker' s own film, I believe, is one of the profoundest documentary meditations we have on the history of communism. Surrounding his investigation of a single Soviet career, however (and what makes the film so interesting to us), is a rather broader philosophical meditation on the status of images in general: their power, their ambiguity, their propensity for falsification and so on. (A quotation at the beginning of the movie by George Steiner sets the parameters of the discussion. "It is not the literal past that rules us", he says, "but images of the past.") Soviet history, of course, with its notorious revisions and occlusions, is fertile ground for the ironical, or tragic-ironical, pursuit of such an enquiry; and one of the film' s most chilling sequences as a matter of fact chronicles the fate of a woman film editor who failed to remove completely the face of a recently-condemned Enemy of the People from a 1930s newsreel (the tip of his nose was left showing at the edge of the doctored black-out strip). For this oversight, she was herself subsequently "edited": that is, dismissed from her post, and in due course, we are led to infer, executed.

The episode, which I mention in passing (in all its sub-humorous grotesquerie), is only one of many asides and tangents in a movie that progresses on the one hand by means of the director' s voice-over commentary (it's structured as a series of loose letters addressed to the recently-deceased Medvedkin); on the other hand by a voiceless kaleidoscope of images working ceaselessly in the subliminal, underground way I have been describing to set up, across the movie, a series of rhymes, correspondances, assonances and mysterious ambivalences.

Let me cite only one such case, a juxtaposition which occurs in a sequence where Marker, thinking about the meaning of socialist realism, highlights a scene from one of Medvedkin's kitscher musical comedies. The extract in question shows a vigorous Russian folk dance. In a wooded glade, and surrounded by smiling clapping comrades, a pretty girl performs a vigorous Russian folk dance. As she finishes her solo a male dancer leaps into the arena. There is a swift cut to another set of footage: a battlefield, with fighting in progress. And a body - surely the body belonging to the man we have just seen? (only it can't be) - explodes on the ground in a broken mangled heap. The effect on the viewer is electrifying . The frisson it delivers is like the hammer blow to the solar plexus that Eisenstein is perpetually theorising. What needs to be singled out for our purposes, however, is the "serendipitous", contingent nature of the splice. The cut has the air of being planned in advance; but in truth it can only have been found. This is the magic of editing, then: the thought comes into existence the moment the editor (or in this case the editor-director) discovers it. It is as if he and we are discovering it together simultaneously.


"Magic", of course, is only critic's shorthand: a metaphor. Have I been too free with the word? Orson Welles was a practising amateur magician as well as a film-maker, and in a film like F for Fake (1975) we come to see how the word "magical" really does describe, I think, the effect of its overall editing strategies.The whole movie (whose subject, as its name implies, is fakery and illusion) possesses a dazzling, rabbit-out-of-the-hat quality that comes from its myriad joins, splices, feints - all stitched together (in the twinkle of an eye) by the hand of a virtuoso conjuror.[3] Yet F for Fake's virtuosity serves to remind the viewer (once he has "recovered from" the spectacle) that editing is actually supposed to be invisible. There are in fact - it is time to be explicit about it - two main traditions of editing: the first called montage, where the cuts are designed to be noticed (how else, in Eisenstein's terms, could one register the feeling as "shock"?); and an opposite tradition, much more mainstream, where the object on the contrary is to render such cuts unobtrusive. So much so that, winding the film back in your head after the show is over, its progress is like the outcome of a seamless single take - an evenly-maintained present tense from which however (in Hitchcock's famous definition) all the "boring bits" have been miraculously evacuated.

This species of editing (in fact, for many professionals, the only form of editing worth bothering about) is commonly associated with Hollywood. In fact it is the vernacular of practically all "filmed entertainment" - of television drama as much as of feature films (formally, they are indistinguishable). Two of its most striking aspects are these: that an individual scene is broken up into countless different shots; and that those shots, when stitched together , will preserve continuity of movement or "flow" - as well as respect for the scene's geographical integrity. It is one of the pleasures of studying film in the classroom to discover that these procedures, which seem to us to be so natural (and which, for the ordinary film-goer, are so natural as not to be noticed) do in fact possess history and provenance. Thus, there was a first time ever, and we can still marvel at it (the film in question - or a plausible candidate - exists in the archive)[4] when a director, or maybe just a cameraman, said: "Let's stop the camera and move in to see this thing closer." So they stopped the shot, picked up the apparatus, moved a few feet forward (or maybe just put in a new lens) and started shooting again. And so, for variety and emphasis - since there were, in silent cinema, neither words nor speeches to carry the audience along - there arose the convention that the action should be seen from many different angles, and from many different distances from the actors. And the audience crossed the proscenium invisibly, as if in a dream; forcing us to say, as we make sense of the experience, isn't that magic too? Isn't that in fact the main magic of cinema?


It never had to be discovered. It's not too difficult, I think, to imagine an alternative development of cinema history whereby the single-take set up or "plan sequence" turned out to be (as in the theatre) the natural syntax of story-telling. Editing "within the scene" might have turned out to be, in this alternative landscape, the exception rather than the rule: at best an eccentricity, in the last resort unnecessary and distracting. The speculation of course is not merely hypothetical, since what has just been described lies at the heart of some of the most rigorous, powerful and beautiful cinema in existence. In the work of directors as diverse (and as eminent) as Mizoguchi, Dreyer, Angelopoulos, Tarkovsky, Ophuls, Greenaway, Jancsó, Skolimowski, Antonioni (to cite only a handful of well-known names), the single shot scene, allied, in the majority of cases, to a relentlessly mobile camerawork, takes over from editing as the fundamental source of cinematic expression, reminding us, if we need to be reminded, that there are indeed alternative ways of doing these things. And since this method of film-making is the result of intellectual choice and not mere random happenstance, it crucially reminds us, too, that there is another side to the "magic" of editing. Editing, by this new argument, is another word for manipulation; whereas the absence of editing allows, or encourages, truth, integrity, enlightenment. You could say that the camera, in single-take cinema, awaits on Truth to emerge like an epiphany (or not to emerge: the directors just cited are patient about the possibility of failure); whereas edited cinema "manufactures" truth, or rather, to put the matter polemically, it lies. Thus the underside of magic - we needn't belabour the point - brushes the realm of flashiness, cheap effects, virtuosity for its own sake, mendacity. Any serious essay on editing, it seems to me, is required to raise the question of manipulation as a moral and political issue. The difficulty is to do it without recourse either to cliché or to stale parti pris. Does one really think of editing as lying? is a question that needs to be answered rather personally - needs, at least, to be open to the possibility that such judgements are not always easy; unless one thinks (as some people do) that all films are emotionally manipulative and, for that reason, morally suspect.

It is not a position I share. (I don't think, if one really believed it, that one could write about cinema intelligently.) Still, there is an element of my response to cinema that is in tune with this rather Bazinian reserve, or austerity, about the very basis of editing itself. Sometimes I think: one shouldn't make a fuss about editing. It is a skill, and a very important one. I've been speaking about it as if it were the director's prerogative but, in another sense, the people who actually carry the task out - albeit in collusion with the director - are "merely" anonymous craftsmen. It would be ludicrous to lose sight of the fact that what matters overall, about cinema, is the vision of the artist, and the integrity of the chosen actors' performances.[5]

So we may agree, then: editing is "magic"; editing is the cinema's virtuosity. And yet...Suppose one were, for a moment,to take André Bazin's position seriously, which is, in effect, that the introduction of editing was a fall from some earlier primeval virtue?[6] The major breakthroughs in editing technique are conventionally attributed to Griffith and Eisenstein, and in each case I find some sympathy (though it is extremely nuanced) with Bazin's hypothetical hostile dissenter. Thus with Griffith, whose achievement, of course, is stupendous, the hesitation crystalizes round the idea that the viewer has to be thrilled by the speed and the frenzy of his chases. The climax of so many Griffithian films being the ride to the rescue, the adult viewer can't avoid feeling, I suppose, a certain boredom and impatience at the mechanical way Griffith cross-cuts between the doughty rescuing party forging forward on the one hand, and on the other hand, the imprisoned heroine (it is usually a heroine) awaiting her last minute deliverance. Editing, in Griffith's hands, confirmed the genius of cinema for excitement, thrills, suspense, along with the pleasures of audience identification. But in doing so it cut out, or rather forced underground, another strand of film-making (beautifully exemplified in early Russian and Scandinavian cinema) whose characteristics are thoughtfulness and languor.

The case of Eisenstein is different. Without being excessively pious, let us agree to agree: the stature of the great Russian - like the stature of Griffith - is unassailable. He is a giant (even, and especially towards the end of his life, a moral giant), however one chooses to consider the matter. But montage, after all, in the hands of the Russians, was, we shouldn't forget, a specifically-honed tool, during the 1920s, for the furtherance of state ideology. The films of Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Vertov etc pressed you to take a view, manipulated you, "battered" you, cozened you. We feel this strongly when we see their films now, because the ideology they championed is so freshly, comprehensively discredited. (There are no Marxists any more, even in universities.) But in truth there was never any doubt that cutting, in the hands of these practitioners, was designed to be partisan and polemical.[7] The British historian Orlando Figes, reviewing a recent biography of Eisenstein glosses montage as "the dynamic juxtaposition of images to force people towards ideas and emotions", but the verb "force" in the sentence is so smoothly given as to function, almost, as an equivocation. Yet is it, we ask ourselves, or is it not, sinister to be forced towards accepting an idea (or an emotion)? Not (we note) forced to choose but rather, it would seem, to submit: to submit to ideas and emotions that have previously been chosen for us. "Eisenstein", says Figes, later in the same review, "invented modern advertising techniques." Yes, that's it, one finds oneself murmuring. The lost world of Bolshevism and the modern world of consumer capitalism are united in this recourse to montage. So it seems to me fitting, then, - even inevitable - that that the discussion of editing should come to rest here, thinking about the astonishing manipulations and morphologies (backed up, in each case, by hundreds of thousands of dollars) which constitute, for our delight and entertainment, the modern movie and television commercial.

Yet in this case, is it truly editing we are talking about? And if so, editing of what kind? Classical editing involves cutting: there is an image, and then there is another image. A choice is made as to how and when they combine, but until they do so they are discrete separable entities, stored on separate pieces of celluloid. Modern editing, by contrast, is increasingly electronic and digital, and the images in question are not so much joined as fused together, or "morphed", in a process that comes closest, in the vocabulary of classical editing, to a continuous optical dissolve. It's all done within the frame, and not, as it were, between the frames. It's impossible now speak of editing, in short, outside the context of the whole aural and visual revolution in post-production - paintboxing, image manipulation, the drive towards "special effects" - that cinema, aided by the advertising industry, is currently going through. The symbolism of George Lucas's "Industrial Light and Magic" comes to mind here : the word "magic", which we have been using (a bit promiscuously) throughout this essay, turns up again in the context of the work of these huge post-production powerhouses - along with the notion governing contemporary studio thinking that an audience is there to be dazzled, stupefied, taken out of itself: transported to distant poetic worlds.

Well, perhaps it is not so new, after all! Editing, since the days of Méliès, has always been associated with sorcery, almost another word for it. The devil is there. A puff of smoke - and the devil has vanished. And though its techniques may have altered in the course of its evolution, the craft remains, as we approach the millenium, as much the mystery of film-making as it ever was.

[1] Experiment arranged by the pioneer film-maker Lev Kuleshov (1899-1970) whereby a closeup of the actor Mozhukhin was juxtaposed with three different images - a bowl of soup, a dead woman in a coffin and a girl playing with a toy bear. According to Pudovkin, who was present at the demonstration, "spectators imagined that the actor was registering hunger towards the soup, sorrow towards the coffin and joy towards the girl. But the image was exactly the same all three times." See Robert Sklar: Film: An International History of the Medium (London, 1993), p. 151

[2] Maybe I should mention also the contemporary Russian film director Oleg Kovalev, whose poetic documentary on Eisenstein Sergei Eisenstein: An Autobiography (St Petersburg, 1995) seems to me to capture, with extraordinary gaiety and assurance, the editing rhythms of Eisenstein's work in the 1920s. To see this film in the right circumstances is to witness "montage", in the old sense, resurrected. Yet it is not a mere archeological exercise.

[3] Though one of the greatest masters of the seamless single take, Welles was no less a master (this is the point I am making) of editing. It's worth recalling that the reason editing gradually came to define his style was relentlessly practical: filming Othello in his vagabond years in Europe, and frequently running out of money, Welles found himself in the position of having to "match" a shot taken in Venice with another one (from the same scene) taken in Spain, and a third, perhaps, in Morocco. Hiding the joins was a task fully worthy of his magicianship. (For a full account of the shoot, with many insights into Welles's personality, see Micheál MacLiammóir's memoir Put Money in They Purse (London, 1952).) Editing is always in some way the issue with Welles, as the recent controversy about the "director's cut" of Touch of Evil (withdrawn from the 1998 Cannes Film Festival at his daughter Beatrice's request) continues to testify.

[4] Barry Salt, in Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis (London, 1983), suggests the British comedy Mary Jane's Mishap (G. A. Smith, 1903). This (rather delightful) movie is included in the two volume video selection Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers issued by the British Film Institute a few years ago.

[5] The self-effacing modesty of a practising film editor is brilliantly brought to life in the classic study by Dai Vaughan: Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart McAllister (BFI Books, London, 1983). See also, in this context, representative interviews in the collection First Cut: Conversations with Film Editors , by Gabriella Oldham (Univ. of California Press, 1992). As far as "secrets"of the trade are concerned, two of the best handbooks are Film Editing by Roger Crittenden (London, 1981, new edition 1994) and The Techniques of Film Editing by Karel Reisz and Gavin Millar (The Focal Press, London, 1989). All students editing will want to read Walter Murch's richly suggestive reflections on the subject: In the Blink of an Eye (Silman-James Press, 1995).

[6] For a fuller discussion of Bazin's views on editing, see my essay "Metaphysics of the `Long Take': some post-Bazinian Reflections" in p.o.v. Number 4, December 1997.

[7] Tarkovsky's reservations about Eisenstein revolve around this issue. Why should we need to be told, he used to say (concerning the famous montage in October where Kerensky "turns into" a peacock), that the leader of the Provisional Government is shallow and vain? The symbolism is importunate, its sarcasm too obvious and motivated. (See Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (London, 1986).)