To cut or not to cut - Roger Crittenden looks at the film editor's hidden art.
Don Fairservice expresses the hope that his book will be the one he could never find on a library shelf: a book that would explain the how and why of film editing. His attempt, the result of hard research and diligent analysis, goes a considerable way towards filling that gap.
There is a value in identifying the roots of the language we use in structuring a film. A clearer understanding can prevent us from being the victims of conventions established by others. The studio bosses'
castigation of D. W. Griffith for shooting a closer shot, reminding him that they had paid for the whole actor, is one indicator that the language was not developed without a struggle.
The bulk of the author's analysis concentrates on Hollywood in the silent era, although he identifies influences from Europe during that time and sketches the effects on editing of movements in Europe after the second world war (neorealism, the French new wave, Dogme). But his only substantial acknowledgement of oriental cinema is a section on Wong Kar-Wai at the very end of his last chapter, despite a tantalising reference to Japanese cinema in his introduction. The analysis of the relation of editing to the nature of dramatic form, whether classical or as developed in cinema itself, is restricted to conventional narrative. Discursive forms that demand alternative structures are hardly alluded to. The whole subject deserves a second volume to do justice to a wider perspective.
Yet in tracing the development of editing in the silent era, this book is a rewarding read, admirable for the way Fairservice has meticulously analysed many pieces of early cinema to demonstrate how the elements in their construction edged the language forward. In doing so, he gives pride of place to the British pioneers whose work encouraged the development of a sophisticated tool for storytelling.
The book ought to be a DVD with the author's commentary over film extracts. This would allow the author to develop some sections that are tantalisingly short - Dickens and cinematic narrative, Cubism and cinema, deliberate discontinuity, staging in depth and plan sequence - and some areas that are overlooked, such as surrealism and experimental film.
The density of detail in Film Editing could hardly be in greater contrast to Editing and Post-Production , edited by Declan McGrath. Here, interviews with 14 eminent practitioners are almost buried by the book's design, which often adds nothing to the text. Especially annoying is the reproduction of anamorphic film frames that remain grotesquely squeezed, and the script or continuity pages that are reproduced too small to be read without a magnifying glass.
Assuming that McGrath is a victim of the series format, we should concentrate on the insights provided by the interviews. Here there is considerable variation. The contributors are not helped by an over-simplified introduction that implies a seamless development of editing from Lumi re to MTV, and there is little reference to successful editing being part of a critical collaboration.
The choice of interviewees betrays a Hollywood bias. Only four have worked exclusively outside that system: Yoshinori Ota, Cecile Ducigis, Jacques Witta and William Chang. While the craftsmanship of Dede Allen or Walter Murch is undeniable, their work is largely circumscribed by the conventional approach to storytelling in the films that they get to cut. It is easy to say that the difference is about the linear nature of conventional films, but the truth is more complicated. Holding a shot longer than its narrative function is almost a question of philosophy.
Yet there are nuggets here among the flotsam thrown up by a tide of self-conscious design. Ralph Winters, who cut Ben Hur , extols the virtue of letting things play in one shot; as somebody said, half the craft of learning to cut is knowing when not to. Ota, who works with Takeshi Kitano, prefers the rhythm and feel of cutting on film to digital systems, and his arguments are persuasive.
The first half of Murch's interview would have made a better introduction to the book, and his second half is excellent on sound editing. Anne Coates acknowledges that she acquired the courage to hold a shot from David Lean. Ducigis emphasises that the directors of the French new wave worked very hard at their exploration of form; for Godard, she says, cinema is editing. Paul Hirsch sees his work as manipulating the structure to tell the story more effectively. By contrast, Witta, who worked with Krzysztof Kieslowski, believes that emotional resonance is more important than narrative coherence: a cinema that asks questions rather than offering answers.
Jim Clark emphasises the difference between editors and cutters, the latter merely being competent assemblers of material. Allen stresses the importance of understanding performance and recommends studying this at the theatre. Pietro Scalia develops a questionable justification for manipulation of reality by the editor. Jill Bilcock brings her work as a collage artist to the ordering of chaos in Baz Luhrmann's films. Chang, on the other hand, believes that cutting should reflect the ephemeral nature of life itself. The book ends with Skip Lievesay on sound editing and Mark Berger on mixing; two pragmatists with inventive attitudes.
Editing and Post-Production may end up on many a media company's coffee table, but Walter Murch's volume, In the Blink of an Eye , remains a greater stimulus to those committed to the craft of editing.
Roger Crittenden is director of the full-time programme, National Film and Television School.
Editing and Post-Production
Author - Declan McGrath
ISBN - 2 88046 555 9
Publisher - RotoVision
Price - £29.95
Pages - 192