Cutters' Way: The Mysterious Art of Film Editing
by Graham Daesler
Bright Lights Film Journal
Porter's experiments, however fumbling they appear in hindsight, point us to a curious quandary at the heart of filmmaking: what is it that makes cutting work? How is it that we accept such a violent transition — whether it be from a wide shot to a close-up, from Paris to the Sahara desert, or from the seventeenth century to the present — as a cut? "Nothing in our day-to-day experience seems to prepare us for such a thing," Walter Murch observes. "From the moment we get up in the morning until we close our eyes at night, the visual reality we perceive is a continuous stream of linked images: In fact, for millions of years — tens, hundreds of millions of years — life on Earth has experienced the world in this way. Then suddenly, at the beginning of the twentieth century, human beings were confronted with something else — edited film."11 What prepared them for this? Not painting, not theater, not even literature, cinematic as some of Dickens's scenes now appear. Murch speculates that it was dreams. "We accept the cut because it resembles the way images are juxtaposed in our dreams," he writes. "In the darkness of the theater, we say to ourselves, in effect, 'This looks like reality, but it cannot be reality because it is so visually discontinuous; therefore, it must be a dream.'"12 Director John Huston saw it differently. Cinema, he said, was not just a reflection of our dream lives but the very essence of conscious thought, with its fitful jumble of visuals and sound: "To me the perfect film is as though it were unwinding behind your eyes, and your eyes were projecting it themselves, so that you were seeing what you wished to see. It's like thought. It's the closest to thought process of any art."13 Watch the final moments of his film The Dead (1987) and you'll have some idea of what he's talking about. As Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) gazes out the frosty filigree of his Dublin window, somberly musing on the emptiness of his life, the film, with no more than a few simple cuts, slips aboard his stream of consciousness as it glides from thought to thought: from past memories to future projections to the lonely churchyard on the hill where his wife's lover lies buried.
The first person to truly discover this cinematic language was D. W. Griffith, who was to early cinema what Jane Austen was to the English novel. He saw what Porter failed to see in The Life of an American Fireman: that you could crosscut between different points of view in a scene to create suspense. Perhaps his most signal technique, for which he is still remembered today, is the accelerated pace of cutting that he used during moments of heightened tension, as in The Lonely Villa (1909), The Lonedale Operator (1911), and The Birth of a Nation (1915), rapidly cutting between heroes and villains during chases and rescues. In this manner, he showed that, with some clever editing, he could subjugate time to his demands, either drawing it out for suspense or speeding it up for sudden denouement. Likewise, he dispensed with the custom, so reminiscent of the stage, of beginning a scene when a character enters a room, cutting instead at the moment of the important action, thereby accelerating the pace of the story. To show characters in thought, he used close-ups and cutaways (from a man's face, for example, to a shot of his sweetheart miles away) rather than the cartoonish dream balloons employed by previous filmmakers. Not only did this last technique prove that simple cuts could simulate consciousness, it established a dividing line between screen acting and stage acting that still exists to this day. In a tight close-up, a good actor need only think a thought to express it, rather than histrionically projecting to the back rows of the theater.
Early film cutting was a sometimes excruciating process. Editors viewed their movies in negative, making it difficult to tell one take from the next. Lacking any numbers on the film to guide them, they were forced to pore over millions of frames by hand, using minute alterations in the image to find their bearings. "Sometimes there'd be a tiny pinpoint on the negative and then you knew you were right," Margaret Booth recalls. "But it was very tedious work. Close-ups of Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm would go on for miles, and they'd be very similar."14 Most prohibitive, though, was the equipment, or rather the shocking lack of equipment. The essential tools of the trade consisted of a rewind bench, a magnifying glass, and an ordinary pair of scissors. The only way you could see the film in motion was to screen it, so editors took to pulling the film through their fingers to simulate movement. The work must have been exceedingly tiresome, yet it evokes a wonderful image, like some kind of strange tailor's shop, with reams of footage dangling from the walls and the editors, strands of film clenched in their teeth, unspooling bolts of celluloid before their eyes. If they wanted three seconds of footage, they held the film to the tip of their nose and pulled it out to the length of their arm. If they wanted to view it in progress, they hauled it into the projection room and screened it, then carried it back to the editing table to get chopped up some more.
All this changed with the invention of the Moviola in 1919. A chunky, frog-green machine with foot pedals to run the film and a four-inch spy hole to view it, the Moviola was the brainchild of Iwan Serrurier, a Dutch-born electrical engineer who designed the contraption on a whim, as a diversion from his job at the Southern Pacific Railroad Company in Pasadena. Originally, Serrurier tried to sell his gadget as a home-entertainment device (the name itself, Moviola, was chosen for its happy harmony with Victrola, the popular phonograph), but, at $600, it was too expensive for most families in 1920 to afford. Then in 1924, Serrurier ran across an editor at Douglas Fairbanks Studios who suggested he adapt it as an editing table for the movie industry. Serrurier "roughed together" a model that very weekend, turning it on its side and attaching a viewing lens and a hand crank he'd lifted from a clock.16 With that, the first editing machine was born. It arrived just in time, too. With the coming of sound, there was no way an editor, no matter how sharp-eyed, could sync sound to silent lips. To accomplish this aural feat, the Moviola was simply fitted with an additional sprocket for the soundtrack to run on, making possible the explosion of talkies that burst from Hollywood, beginning in 1927. After that, the device changed little. It was hefty, ugly, noisy (more than one editor compared the clanking it made to a sewing machine) and, because of its tilted viewer, required the user to sit hunched over all day at a forty-five-degree angle. Yet it remained the mainstay of the film industry for the next seventy years, an unequivocal, if curious, testament to its durability, almost as if the Model T had persisted as the car-of-choice until the new millennium.
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