The Film Experience: Chapter 4 Summary

Editing is the process of cutting and combining multiple shots into sequences that present events and story information. The power and art of film editing lie in the ways in which the hundreds or thousands of discrete images that make up a film can be shaped to make sense within the narrative arc of the film or to have an emotional or visceral impact upon the audience.

A Short History of Film Editing

Long before film technology was invented, people used images to tell stories. These images ranged from cave paintings to religious triptychs to comic strips. In the late nineteenth century, illustrated lectures using photographic slides became popular.
Films quickly evolved from the use of single shots to the use of multiple images to tell a story. Early filmmaker Georges Méliès used stop-motion photography, and later editing, to create delightful visual effects. By 1906, the period now known as “early cinema” gave way to narrative-driven cinema, a transition facilitated by more codified practices of editing. While not the first filmmaker to use it, D. W. Griffith helped pioneer the editing technique of crosscutting, or parallel editing, which involves alternating among multiple strands of simultaneous story action.
The concept of editing as montage is closely associated with Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. While montage is simply the French word for editing, the term has come to designate a theory of editing that emphasizes the breaks and contrasts between images joined by a cut.
The introduction of sound technology in the late 1920s solidified Hollywood’s commitment to continuity editing, an approach that emphasizes spatial and temporal clarity in order to present a story to an audience in a logical and coherent manner. Beginning in the 1940s, cinematic realism became established as one of the primary aesthetic principles in film editing, influenced in part by Italian neorealism and documentary filmmaking practices.
In the post–World War II period, alternative editing styles emerged and aimed to fracture classical editing’s illusion of realism. Various strategies of disjunctive editing, such as jump cuts, were utilized in the artistic cinema of directors like Jean-Luc Godard, who sought to provide an alternative aesthetic to Hollywood. However, these avant-garde practices were later assimilated into the mainstream aesthetics of fast-paced editing and frenetic camera work, like that seen in commercials, music videos, and Hollywood action films.
One of the most significant changes to film editing was the emergence of digital editing in the later part of the twentieth century. Computer-based digital editing systems allow immediate access to footage and unprecedented opportunities to manipulate and combine images in new ways. Although one effect of the ease and affordability of digital editing seems to be a more rapid pace of editing, digital filmmaking can also embrace the opposite aesthetic effect. Another significant benefit of digital editing is longer shot length. On film, the length of a single take was limited by how much stock the camera could hold; on digital video, the duration of a shot is virtually limitless.

The Elements of Editing

Editing involves decisions about which shots to include, the most effective take of each shot, the arrangement and duration of shots, and the transitions between them. Editing can produce meaning by combining shots in an infinite number of ways. One shot is selected and joined to other shots by the editor to guide viewers’ perceptions and emotions.
A cut describes the break and common border that links two different pieces of film and separates two shots. Other types of editing transitions between shots—known as optical effects—include fade-outs, fade-ins, dissolves, the iris, and wipes.
In both narrative and non-narrative films, editing is a crucial strategy for ordering space and time. As mentioned above, continuity editing is a system that uses cuts and other transitions to establish verisimilitude and to tell stories efficiently, requiring minimal mental effort on the part of viewers. The basic principle of continuity editing is that each shot has a continuous relationship to the next shot. It is also called invisible editing. Spatial patterns are frequently constructed by the use of an establishing shot, generally an initial long shot that establishes the setting and orients the viewer in space to a clear view of the action. The standard practice of filming a conversation involves a close shot of both characters, and following that with a shot of the person speaking before cutting to the other person in the conversation.
The 180-degree rule is a conventional rule of continuity editing in which the camera must film the action of a scene from one side of an imaginary line called the axis of action.
The 30-degree rule specifies that a shot should only be followed by another shot taken from a position greater than 30 degrees from that of the first.
Other common devices or techniques of continuity editing include shot/reverse shot, eye line match, point-of-view shot, reaction shot, and cutaway.
Editing is one of the chief ways that temporality is manipulated in the time-based medium of cinema. Story chronology can be manipulated through flashbacks or, more rarely, flash forwards. In the classical model of Hollywood filmmaking, the temporal relations among story segments are usually clearly indicated. However, in certain art cinema practices story temporality can be purposely ambiguous to suggest subjective or psychological conceptions of time.
Duration denotes the temporal relation of shots and scenes to the amount of time that passes in the story. In addition to temporal and spatial narrative patterns, editing may link images according to more abstract similarities and differences that make creative use of space and time. Here we distinguish among three abstract patterns in editing: graphic editing, movement editing, and rhythmic editing. Often these patterns work together to support or complicate the action being shown.

VIEWING CUE: Chinatown
Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) is a tribute to the way the filmic language of 1940s film noir conveyed urban menace and corruption. A twisted chain of events is set off when Mrs. Mulwray (Diane Ladd) enters the office of detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicolson).
Discussion Questions
After watching the clip from Chinatown, consider the questions below.
1. Do a shot-by-shot breakdown of this scene by counting the number of shots and noting the subject, camera distance, and camera movement in each. How is the spatial relationship between shots established by editing?
2. What is the motivation behind each cut? If you notice a change in the pattern of cutting, what do you think it signifies?

 VIEWING CUE: The General

The dynamism of Buster Keaton’s silent-film comedy arises from the coordination of physical movement with the spatial and temporal manipulation of editing. The plot of The General (Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, 1926) is set in motion when Union soldiers steal Keaton’s character’s steam engine, the General.
Discussion Questions
After watching the clip from The General, consider the questions below.
1. Count and then time the shots in the sequence. How does the rhythm of the editing in the sequence contribute to the film’s mood or meaning?
2. How is the gag set up by editing?
FORM IN ACTION: Moulin Rouge!
Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) is a postmodern musical: it combines the plot of the opera La Bohème with pop music and Bollywood production numbers. Early in the film Christian (Ewan McGregor) is ushered into the world of the Moulin Rouge nightclub presided over by impresario Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent).
Discussion Questions
After watching the clip from Moulin Rouge!, consider the questions below.
1. How does the editing of the film exemplify the idea of postmodernism as a pastiche of styles, periods, and genres?

FILM IN FOCUS: Bonnie and Clyde

In this renowned and horrifying conclusion to Bonnie and Clyde(Arthur Penn, 1967) , the editing is both subtle and complex.
Discussion Questions
After watching the clip from Bonnie and Clyde,consider the questions below.
1. Watch the sequence several times, concentrating on the patterns of shot/reverse shot editing. How do these patterns complicate and enrich the meaning of the sequence?
2. How does the editing rhythm of the sequence make this more than simply the description of an ambush and a killing?
Patterns of Editing in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
            Narrator: Although it is set in the 1930s, nothing felt more contemporary than Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde when it burst on the screen in 1967.  Dede Allen’s editing turns this tragic comedy about the notorious outlaws’ crime spree into a visceral experience capturing the restless energy of a country divided by generation, race, and political ideology.
            Narrator: The film opens with a series of still snapshots edited together as a documentary photo montage, implying that these lifeless images cannot tell the whole story until they are animated and edited together in a meaningful way.
            Narrator: Bonnie and Clyde frequently uses continuity editing to give clear spatial and temporal cues.  For example, in the scene showing the couple’s first small town bank robbery, we are first shown a long shot of their car parked outside the bank followed by a shot from inside the bank showing the car parked outside; this shows us the geography of the scene as well as what’s happening during these linked shots.  But at other times the film’s editing emphasizes psychological or emotional effects over realism.  For
            example, Bonnie is first introduced with an extreme close-up of her lips.  The camera then pulls back as she turns right to look in a mirror.  This is followed by a cut on action as she stands and looks back over her shoulder to the left in a medium shot and then by another cut on action as she drops to her bed, her face visible in a close-up through the bed frame which she petulantly punches.  She pulls herself up and looks out between the bars of the bedframe.  With another
            cut she rises from the bed with her back turned toward us and reaches to the right for her dress.  This central character is described by a series of jerky shots: her boredom and frustration are also built into the editing through cutting on action.  The lack of an establishing shot combines with the multiple framings to emphasize the claustrophobic mise-en-scéne, taking us right into the character’s psychologically-rendered space.  The meeting with Clyde comes next and
            the editing indicates the break he represented from the trap Bonnie feels herself to be in.  She goes to her window and then a point-of-view construction spots a strange man near her mother’s car.
            Narrator: She comes downstairs to investigate and her conversation with Clyde is handled in a series of shot/reverse shots, starting with long shots as she comes outside, and proceeding to closer pairs of shots.  The two-shot of the characters together is delayed.  The way this introduction is handled emphasizes the inevitability of their pairing.
            Narrator: Because Bonnie and Clyde is a gangster film in which cars and guns figure prominently, complex spatial connections are repeatedly set up between the pursuers and the pursued.
            Narrator: Editing on movement pervades the film.  Its stop-and-go rhythm is probably one of the most striking features.  As the Barrow gang flees from the police in one car chase, shots alternate between the police and the gang.  Intercut, as a parallel action, are interviews with witnesses to the robbery who brag about having been part of a Bonnie and Clyde caper.  The influence French New Wave storytelling and editing is apparent in this ironic counterpoint.
            Narrator: The film was probably most well known for its climactic sequence in which Bonnie and Clyde are gunned down.  It is, in fact, two discrete scenes—distinguished by changes in action.  But it is the changes in pacing in these two scenes that leave viewers feeling as if they too have been ambushed.  In the first scene, Bonnie and Clyde pull up beside the broken down truck of the man who has been sheltering them.  His anxiety about having betrayed them to the
            cops is signaled by a quick glance at the bushes followed by a point-of-view shot in which a flock of birds suddenly rises.  Bonnie and Clyde are each shown following his gaze in eyeline matches.  The collaborator takes cover and a remarkable series of shots ensues alternating rhythmically between close-ups of the lovers’ faces as they look at each other in alarm, realizing they are surrounded.  Then the shooting begins.  Next, accompanied by the staccato of machine gun bullets, Bonnie’s and Clyde’s
            deaths are filmed in slow motion; their bodies reacting with almost balletic grace to the impact of the gunshots and to the rhythm of the film’s shots, which are almost as numerous.  In nearly thirty cuts and approximately forty seconds, the film alternates between close-ups of the two victims’ spasms and bodies and medium to long shots that re-establish the scene of their deaths.  The sense that their deaths are
            happening in slow motion is created by overlapping the action.  For example, Clyde’s fall to the ground is split into three shots.  The hail of bullets finally stops and the film’s final minute is comprised of a series of seven shots of the police and other onlookers gathering around without a single reverse shot of what they are seeing.
            Narrator: For linking sex with violence, glamorizing its protagonists through beauty and fashion, and addressing itself to the anti-authoritarian feelings of young audiences, Bonnie and Clyde is among the most important US films of the 1960s.  It heralded the beginning of a new, youth-oriented film market—one that revisited film genres of the past with a modern sensibility.  There’s no doubt that the climactic linkage of gunshots with camera shots profoundly
            influenced the editing of the blockbuster action movies that would follow.

FILM IN FOCUS: Battleship Potemkin
Describing the violent repression of the Czarist troops, the Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) is perhaps the most famous sequence in the history of film editing. In it, the bystanders who have come to cheer on the sailors aboard the ship are brutally massacred by Cossacks.
Discussion Questions
After watching the clip from Battleship Potemkin, consider the questions below.
1. Why is the pacing of the editing and the movement within shots critical to the meaning of the sequence? How are our perceptions of space and time shaped and altered by editing in the sequence? Pay attention to variations in angle and shot length.
Montage in Battleship Potemkin and The Untouchables
            Narrator: Suddenly, followed by two quick jerks of a head, announces the turning point in one of the most famous editing achievements in the history of film: the Odessa steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein's theories of montage are here displayed in full force, as a quiet afternoon in Odessa turns into a bloody massacre at the hands of Czarist forces. The crowds
            have gathered in support of the sailors onboard the Potemkin, who have mutinied against the injustices of the ship's command. The wide stone steps, appearing as diagonal stripes of black and white, provide a naturally dynamic space for this conflict between the regimentation of the Czar’s relentlessly marching troops and the haphazardness of the fleeing crowds.
            Narrator: The movement in the images is matched by the impression of movement generated by conflicts between shots—all different in scale, in composition, and in duration. The spatial conflicts between figures crashing into each other, as well as the graphic conflicts in composition, underscore the conflict between power and powerlessness.
            Narrator: An extreme long shot, in whose foreground a mother runs, clutching her child's hand, is followed by one in medium long shot of the troops guns firing on the fleeing crowds. We see in a shot of a similar distance, the child fall.
            Narrator: This sets up an excruciating alternation between the tighter shots of the mother's look, as she finally turns back to see her child's answering cries and trampled limbs, and longer shots of the fleeing crowds.
            Narrator: The mother gathers up her son, and cries out to the citizens of Odessa for help.
            Narrator: In the midst of the fleeing crowd, a grandmother hears her call and urges the crowds to approach the oncoming soldiers and convince them to stop shooting.
            Narrator: The soldiers, firing their guns, continue to advance on the people. The mother, carrying her child, continues to walk towards the soldiers.
            Narrator: The shot patterns take on ideological rhythms as the people, led by the women and peasants begin to form a mass, pleading with the troops to stop.
            Narrator: The mother is shot by the anonymous squad and falls at their feet. This tragic outcome is heartbreaking, and the soldiers' ruthlessness spurs our outrage. The crowds disperse in terror, and the Cossacks arrive, setting up the second, even more famous endangered child sequence. The crowds flee the relentless onslaught of the marching troops and the mounted Cossacks at the foot of the stairs.
            Narrator: We see a young mother pushing a baby carriage who's jostled by the crowd.
            Narrator: And in her attempt to shield her child from the relentless gunfire, she is shot.
            Narrator: We see the agony on her face, as she slumps against the baby carriage. Eisenstein intersperses wide shots of the chaos and devastation with suspenseful close-ups of the dying mother, the carriage teetering at the top of the steps, and the footsteps of the soldiers. Modern audiences understand these rhythms of anticipation and delay, because of decades of use of editing techniques inspired by Eisenstein's montage. Eisenstein is aware of the
            effect that these images of heroic mothers and innocent children have on the audience, and he doesn't hesitate to use them to capture our empathy for the people of Odessa.
            Narrator: The carriage finally tips, and it hurtles down the steps. We see that the baby is crying.
            Narrator: We feel helpless in our inability to stop the plunging baby carriage, a sense that is vividly mirrored in the frequent inserts of horrified onlookers' faces.
            Narrator: We see the Cossack's terrifying face as he strikes seemingly right at us, and the final image of a woman's bloodied eye.
            Narrator: Parodies of the Odessa steps sequence, however, are much more wide-ranging in their intended emotional effects. One of the most famous and most cynical is in Brian De Palma's 1987 film, The Untouchables. Kevin Costner plays Eliot Ness, a government agent in single-minded pursuit of gangster Al Capone. As the scene begins, Ness is posted at Chicago's Union Station, on a tip that Capone's
            accountant Payne is catching a 12:05 train out of town. Ness and his partner take up their posts in the station and, surveying the scene, Ness spies a young mother struggling at the bottom of the station's long staircase with her crying baby and a couple of suitcases. An almost unbearably long point-of-view sequence ensues in which Ness alternates between combing his surroundings for Payne and Capone's goons, and checking on the mother and baby's progress. The
            montage is effective, but we also feel manipulated by inserts of the big station clock as it measures both the time until the train departs and the duration of the scene, and by the nursery music that overtakes the soundtrack at the mob's entrance. Passengers stream down the stairs, hardly possessing the same threat of Eisenstein's Czarist soldiers, but still the atmosphere is thick with tension. Finally, exactly at noon, four-and-a-half-minutes into the sequence, Ness
            helps the mother with the carriage and each bump of the carriage up the stairs rings out as Ness looks warily around. He spots Capone's men. Then he sees Payne, accompanied by another thug.
            Narrator: He feels a gaze at his back. Still holding the carriage, he turns and raises his gun and a firefight begins. Inevitably, the carriage is released, and shots of its descent punctuate the carnage.
            Narrator: Finally and improbably, at the last possible second, the carriage is stopped by Ness's partner, played by Andy Garcia. A sharpshooter, he takes out a thug while still propping up the carriage. As if mocking the sentiment evoked by innocent babies tumbling down staircases, the scene ends with the steps as littered with bodies as in Eisenstein's magisterial original.

An Editing Tutorial in Man with a Movie Camera
            Made in 1929, a little more than a decade after the Russian Revolution, Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera was a dynamic experiment in filming the life of the modern Soviet city. In the '20s, cities were transformed by new technologies like automobiles, streetcars and skyscrapers. People flowed into metropolitan centers to participate in new forms of labor and leisure including the movies. Man with a Movie Camera builds on films celebrating this
            transformation, like Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, and it exemplifies one of the richest artistic movements in film history—Soviet montage. Along with filmmakers like Lev Kulashov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Vladimir Pudovkin, Vertov pioneered confrontational, often disjunctive editing or montage techniques. You can see examples of this here; the film alternates between shots of a speeding train and shots of horse-drawn buggies and automobiles on city streets.
            Vertov, his brother, cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman, and his wife, editor Elizaveta Svilova, called themselves kino-oki, which translates as "camera eye" and they pioneered the newsreel form. Man with a Movie Camera was their most ambitious film yet. As the title suggests the cameraman, himself, is the protagonist. In this sequence, which occurs about 21 minutes into the film, the cameraman, played by Kaufman, is filming the inhabitants of the city. Here
            the image alternates between shots of what the cameraman films, passengers and horse-drawn buggies on their way to the train station, and shots of him filming from a car running alongside; this reveals the camera eye, normally unseen by viewers, although we don't get to see who films the cameraman. The film is clearly self-reflective. We even see one of the women making a cranking gesture, mimicking the cameraman.
            Next we see an even more startling montage effect—the juxtaposition of moving and still images. Suddenly the horse comes to a halt. The viewer experiences a jolt. Is something wrong? We see a woman with a parasol—a street scene. The series of still images freezes the subjects in time—a large crowd, a close-up of a peasant woman. Finally, we see
            an image that shows the filmstrip itself with several frames visible, each a photogram. When the film cuts back to a single full frame we can imagine it's one frame of many on the filmstrip. We cut again to a shot of a filmstrip. We see an array of shots arranged in strips for the editor to select. And as the film is spooled onto the flatbed, we see how movement is restored to still images by machines and
            by human labor. The woman at the editing table is Man with a Movie Camera editor Elizaveta Svilova, Dziga Vertov's wife. She selects the image, cuts, splices, sorts, and the subject comes alive for us. The film continues to alternate between showing the editor at work, images of filmstrips drained of life, and the
            film itself. The film we were watching moments before is deconstructed before our very eyes. Up until this point we marvel at the feats of the Man with a Movie Camera, but now we're made conscious of the subtler magic of the woman at the editing table. The sequence shows the very means through which the film's illusion is animated. We see the filmstrips and footage from other sequences in the film—young children entranced by the performance of a magician on the street, the
            peasant woman haggling. The editor is assembling the very film we ourselves are watching.
            Finally, the woman with the parasol is set in motion again. A woman speaks. The horse resumes its journey. Now we understand that the meaning we derive from the sequence of actions has been actively shaped by the editor off-screen.