No personal blog crapola.
Just one guy's quest to unlock the mysterious art of storytelling on screen.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mommy, make the bad editors stop!

I can't take it any more. I just can't.

Quantum of Solace was the last straw.

It's the latest 'blender-cam' action film to confuse rapid cutting with excitement. Fast editing does not equal excitement. Oh, it does... sometimes, when used sparingly the way a surgeon uses special-purpose forceps or when a flutist uses a particular breathing technique.

Over the last decade, when it comes to the art of film editing, the word 'sparingly' has been gradually pushed further and further back into a dark corner of the dictionary, somewhere behind 'acrocephalic' (having a pointy head) and in front of 'zenzizenzizenzic' (a number raised to the eighth power) . Before anyone knew, the word had disappeared entirely. No one realised it has been taken out back and quietly shot in the head by a secret society of Hollywood editors.

There is no correlation between excitement on screen and cuts-per-second. I don't care if you're an editor and your director is screaming at you to "Do your fucking job and edit! Cut, cut, cut, faster, goddamn you, this is an action scene!" Have the guts to stand up for yourself, your film, and your craft, and JUST SAY NO.

Give them the blender cut, but also give them your version where the story drives the editing. Where every shot in the sequence earns its place. Where if you omit a single frame of film, it subtly alters the narrative. If your director has any chops at all (and that is a big 'if' these days), he or she will likely go with the narrative cut over the blender cut.

The first time I knew something was 'off' with a film's editing was back in 1990 when I saw Renny Harlin's Die Hard 2. Two things were very obvious very quickly:

  1. Harlin loved a tight shot. This film was all close-ups. The phrase 'in your face' was never so apt as here.

  2. Harlin loved fast cutting. I recall watching a dialogue scene taking place in somebody's office, and it was cut-cut-cut. I'm scratching my head, thinking, Why are we cutting every second? Is there some kind of invisible action scene playing out on screen? We're in an office, for crying out loud. We're watching talking heads. What the hell is driving this epileptic cutting back and forth?
I'm not sure how to aportion the blame between Harlin and editor Robert Ferretti. Looking at Ferretti's body of work, I don't see anything that would absolve him.

So for me, Die Hard 2 was the first 'blender cut' movie. Nowadays, the Bourne franchise is most cited as the prime showcase of rapid cutting, but I would argue Paul Greengrass is always in command of the technique and generally lets the narrative drive it. Also, Greengrass never allows the blender-cutting to cross the line where spatial reference and narrative clarity is lost. In other words, Greengrass is the surgeon using special-purpose forceps compared to Harlin's "Look, Ma, I can edit!" approach.

Interestingly, there's a comparison to be drawn here between blender editing and the deepening disatisfaction over the so-called 'loudness wars', where audio engineers compress the sound as much as possible before mastering on CD, resulting in loud but clipped music.

I guess these things go in cycles. Please, let the blender-cut cycle end soon. Oh Lord, please.

Thankfully, there's a simple antidote to the poison of blender-cut overdose. His name is Steven Spielberg. Or more precisely, the editors Spielberg has worked with:
  • The late Verna Fields
    American Graffiti (Lucas), The Sugarland Express, Jaws

  • The great Michael Kahn
    Indiana Jones, Poltergeist, Goonies, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, etc. etc. etc.

  • Carol Littleton
Spielberg's mastery of directing without editing is just one aspect of his cinematic genius. Watch how he moves the camera, how he orchestrates the narrative flow through the foreground, midground, and background of the frame, letting the story unfold organically where a lesser director would resort to a half a dozen setups and a dozen edits.

Phew. OK. Got that out of my system. But I do wonder... when the old-skool editors are gone, and we're left with the blender-cut editor generation, will hope remain for a return to narrative-driven editing?

Yes. Hope remains. But don't look for it inside Hollywood.

Begin with Let The Right One In.


Michelle Goode said...

Oh wow, I think you're spot on there. I haven't seen Quantum of Solace yet, but the mere fact it has blender-cut editing has already put me off a bit. I think what's worse is the fact that TV shows have now taken on this technique. This technique is one of the most annoying ones there are, but I also find the technique whereby the camera moves about too much, or worse - jitters about the screen as though the cameraman is being chased by a bloodthirsty tiger, incredibly rant-worthy. Maybe I shall have a rant myself if any more TV shows adopt this headache-inducing method.

Jeff said...

Man, I couldn't agree with you more. The most revolutionary thing an action director could do nowadays is "linger on a shot." Lockdown. Oooh, never seen that before.

This is kind of a bad comparison but watching an old Jackie Chan movie the other day, I took note that the ACTORS were kinetic but the camera and editing were basically pretty stationary. And yet, of course, the movie no less enthralling, action-wise.

Additionally, as hideous and awful as Indy 4 was, it was at least a breath of fresh air in seeing action scenes without all that garbled fast-cut nonsense. As you said, Spielberg is indeed the man.

Kevin said...

I wholeheartedly agree. You should read this:

It sums up fantastically how the differing editing styles affect our brain. Worth reading.

Belzecue said...

Thank you, Kevin, for that David Bordwell link -- a terrific article offering plausible explanations for the blender-cut trend. I must dig into David's site some more. Cheers.

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