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Expression in Editing


In the space of two days, I recently saw two films that could not be more different. The first was The Raid 2, Gareth Evans’ sequel to his explosive 2012 martial arts adventure. The second was A Story of Children and Film, a documentary by Mark Cousins that merges the conceits of his last previous works, The Story of Film: An Odyssey and The First Movie. The Raid 2 is a fictional drama, a martial arts/crime thriller that delivers a blistering ballet of brutality. Cousins’ documentary is lyrical, free associative and meandering. Both excel at what they do and each film offers particular delights and pleasures, and serve to highlight one of the most important tools in filmmaking – editing.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that the three most important components of any film were script, script and script. While this is a convenient soundbite for the critic who decries overreliance on special effects or glamorous actors, it is overly simplistic to describe cinema as being based primarily on the written word (and besides, Hitch could have been referring to screenplay, shooting script and another form of script). For sure, the written screenplay is important, but many a filmmaker subscribes to the belief that films are made in the editing room, in the assembly of otherwise disparate images. Small wonder that directors form lasting and productive collaborations with their editors, such as Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Mann and Dov Hoenig, and some, including James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh and Gareth Evans, edit their films themselves.

Sergei Eisenstein argued that the power of cinema lay in the juxtaposition of images rather than the sustained shot, hence his development of montage in such classics as The Battleship Potemkin (1925). Similarly, Evans uses fast cutting to express both the swift blows and dizzying impact of martial arts combat. Films like The Raid 2 are a testament to the merging of combat performance and editing, as the skills of performers like Iko Uwais and Julie Estelle are displayed to dazzling effect, while the cuts between different shots express the physical impact of the blows, leading to a visceral experience. Long takes of athletic prowess are impressive, and frequent in The Raid 2 as well, such as sustained pan shots of a prison yard during a riot as well as a warehouse towards the end of the film. Such shots, however, are generally at a distance, wide angle and encompass much of the cinematic space. Fast editing of close quarters combat helps to create a sense of being in the thick of combat, a vicarious experience for the viewer that gives us the experience of being in the ferocious fights of the film (without the inconvenience of pain).

By contrast, Mark Cousins uses editing to link together seemingly disparate scenes. Early in A Story of Children and Film, Cousins explains that he will not progress through films chronologically, but will be guided by how the behaviour of his niece and nephew reminds him of children in other films. The range of films referenced by Cousins is extraordinary, including An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990) and The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995). I consider myself reasonably familiar with cinema, but the only films referenced in Cousins’ documentary that I had seen were E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982) and The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), making the film something of an education. I was a little disappointed at the omission of films about children and film, such as Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011) and Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, 2007), but Cousins is interested in how film presents children, identifies and extrapolates their shyness, their defiance, their performativity. Editing enables Cousins to draw together his seemingly disparate examples, taking us from Japanese boys chasing dogs to an Iranian girl having a “strop” about goldfish. Cousins’ finale brings together films from various countries about kids with balloons, linking these unrelated movies in a moving and thought-provoking way.

Cousins’ cinematography favours a static camera, both of his niece and nephew in his living room as well as wide angle exterior shots of the Isle of Skye. Evans’ camera is more mobile, taking the viewer into the cinematic space of his drama and, as mentioned above, thrusting us into the thick of battle. Cousins’ camera also creates intimacy through dwelling on the events before it, both in his own footage and the scenes from other films that he refers to. The techniques of these filmmakers serve to draw the viewer in, and invite us to interpret meaning from the assembly of images, the editing both presenting meaning and allowing us to infer from the spaces between the shots.



Coming/Cumming Soon

In honour of academics I admire, I’ve decided to write about a trailer, rather than a movie. I’ve watched the trailer for the upcoming film Don Jon several times and intend to see the film when it comes out, but the trailer itself is a fascinating assembly of concepts, sounds and images that tells its own narrative and forms its own (unique?) association with the viewer.

PosterStudies of trailers have demonstrated that they have their own structure, narrative and meaning, while industry logic dictates that a trailer must highlight the main selling points of the film. Don Jon’s trailer establishes the (presumably eponymous) protagonist, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the equilibrium of his life, the disruption to this equilibrium and the likely resolution. In doing so, the trailer suggests the narrative of the film, which the viewer can anticipate due to the tropes and conventions of the genre, a genre also suggested by the trailer.

The genre and narrative of Don Jon are inextricably linked, to that familiar and much derided body of films, the romantic comedy. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as he appears in the trailer, plays a young man who works out, loves his family and community, picks up girls and enjoys pornography. Indeed, the pillars that constitute the equilibrium of Gordon-Levitt’s life are emphasised, his voiceover listing what he cares about: ‘My body; my pad; my ride; my family; my church; my boys; my girls; my porn’. It is interesting that these priorities do not include a job, which helps to frame Gordon-Levitt’s character as a funseeker, doing what he likes. Whatever his job may be, it is not something he cares deeply about. The trailer’s emphasis of his pleasures suggest a target audience of similar funseekers, or those who want the escapist pleasures of cinema, which is important to the narrative of the trailer as well (more on this later). The voiceover is repeated three times over a montage of Gordon-Levitt working out, cleaning his apartment, driving, associating with his family, going to church, meeting his friends, kissing girls and viewing pornography on his laptop. Each time the montage and voiceover is faster, conveying the pumping rhythm of Gordon-Levitt’s life and the ease and pleasure he derives from it. What more could anyone ask for?

In a romantic comedy, of course, a romantic partner, or else where would we be? Such a figure enters the trailer during the third reiteration in the form of Scarlett Johansson, looking unbelievably sexy (and doesn’t she always?).

ScarlettIf you watch the trailer repeatedly, her character’s name becomes visible, but for the purposes of the trailer her name isn’t important – she’s Scarlett, she’s sexy, and she literally stops Gordon-Levitt’s world in the third reiteration of his priorities. She is the disturbance to his established world, and the rest of the trailer demonstrates the disruption that she causes.

What is most striking about the trailer is its knowingness towards its audience, as this movie trailer refers to other movies, Johansson’s character asking Gordon-Levitt if he likes movies. This is followed by a brief sequence of them going to the cinema, complete with shots of popcorn being scooped, and then watching a romantic film featuring (I think) Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway. Gordon-Levitt’s voiceover cynically derides the romance, ‘the pretty boy, the pretty girl, the romantic ending’, which contrasts with Johansson’s enraptured face. Cut to the cinema lobby, after the film, and Johansson gushes about how much she loves ‘movies like that’. Gordon-Levitt agrees, and they share a romantic kiss straight out of a movie. So the trailer suggests an interest in people’s responses to movies, including those who are watching this trailer itself.

KissResponses to movies form the drama of the trailer, as Johansson is appalled at Gordon-Levitt watching porn, to which he retorts that the movies she likes are ‘stupid’. Johansson protests that romantic films and porn are different, citing as a reason: ‘they give awards for movies’; but as Gordon-Levitt points out, ‘they give awards for porn too’ (which is true). With this conflict-which-is-tension-which-is-drama set up, the stage is set for this couple to quarrel, probably break up, and probably get back together, based on the conventions of the genre. The trailer also indicates the likely development of Gordon-Levitt’s character, as Julianne Moore advises him of the value of change, and his voiceover also considers changing. The viewer familiar with romantic movies can assume that Gordon-Levitt will fall in love with Johansson, change his ways, and become a better person as a result of this romantic union. Whether this is how the film actually plays out remains to be seen – while it is full of interesting details, it does not go so far as to spoil the film. But the trailer does play upon the viewer’s understanding of the romantic genre, and demonstrates its own understanding of both the genre and the resultant audience expectations.

The trailer also emphasises the talent, highlighting that this is THE FIRST FILM WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT. Interestingly, it does not list him as the star, although the names SCARLETT JOHANSSON and JULIANNE MOORE do appear. Nonetheless, the star-writer/director is very prominent, suggesting a further acknowledgement that the viewer will either know who Gordon-Levitt is, or associate his name with the cut to his face after his name as writer-director. So across its duration, the trailer forms an association with its audience, in terms of the shared knowledge both of its talent and its genre.

JGLA completely different association may be formed between the viewer and the film itself, which may not emphasise its genre as much as the trailer does. Indeed, reports indicated fears that, when submitted to the MPPA, the film would be rated NC-17, a rating that tends to harm box office performance (reports also mention that the film was recut, but not whether this cutting was to secure an R rating). Perhaps the film as a whole will be more concerned with sex-based pratfalls and a portrayal of family and community than highlighting the similarities between romantic movies and pornography and whether its protagonist wants to live in one or the other. I’ll find out when I see it, but as a text in its own right, Don Jon’s trailer invites an interesting and very knowing engagement with its viewer.

HD Isolation

Shame title

My last post discussed the treatment of violence in Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011). Another theme in Drive is urban alienation, a theme explored in greater depth in another film which came out the same year: Shame, written and directed by Steve McQueen (no, not that one). Like Ryan Gosling’s Driver, Michael Fassbender’s Brandon is a man isolated in the urban wilderness, both men deriving meaning from specific activities, driving for Driver and sex for Brandon. Amusingly, both encounter Carey Mulligan, who plays Driver’s neighbour and potential romance Irene, and Brandon’s emotionally damaged sister, Sissy. Both films are made by non-Americans who turn a penetrating eye on American urban environments, Los Angeles in Drive and New York in Shame. A key element which emerges from these environments is isolation, and a key tool is high-definition digital film.

When discussing Shame with fellow movie buffs, the film has been described as “beautiful”, “haunting”, “hypnotic” and “mesmerising”. The underlying commonality among these responses is that Shame draws you in and maintains your attention, compelling the viewer to keep watching. McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt achieve this effect by staging much of the action in long takes. Many shots last several minutes and capture a lot of action, sometimes lasting for entire scenes. Furthermore, these long takes make use of deep focus, capturing detail in the distance as well as that close to the camera. In high definition, this detail is clearly visible, resulting in a rich and textured image, but not a cluttered one – everything within the frame is neat and ordered.

Shame 5

This style is used from very early in the film, as a naked Brandon rises and goes through his morning routine, a single take capturing him in his disciplined but sterile apartment as he walks, urinates and ignores the phone ringing. Through the expansive windows appear the first indications of his isolation – various anonymous buildings whose detail can be seen in high definition deep focus. This visual arrangement continues through the film, Brandon situated in expansive environments in which he is isolated. This isolation is achieved both by long shots which make him diminutive, and the high definition deep focus which does not emphasise him. The viewer identifies Brandon as different from the metal, concrete and glass around him, but with everything in equal focus and definition, the person is no more or less emphasised than what surrounds him. People are not only anonymous in Shame’s vision of New York, they are practically part of the scenery.

This scenery features many flat panels, including the plate glass windows of New York buildings, glass walls and doors in the office where Brandon works, sleek, shiny tables and computer screens. These smooth panels are visually echoed in the sleek planes of Brandon’s body, the naked breadths of his chest, back and legs are similarly smooth and almost featureless. These planes again integrate Brandon with his environment, which further expresses the disengagement he has with others. The protagonist glances off people as though he were made of glass or stainless steel himself. A subsequent role played by Fassbender was David in Prometheus, and his role in Shame serves as a fascinating precursor to the android. Although Brandon does have emotions, he as unable to operate as a human being as the artificial person.

Shame 2

McQueen’s long takes serve to emphasise Brandon’s isolation and immersion in his environment, in some scenes reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. This is especially striking when Brandon goes jogging, the camera capturing his progress in continuous tracking shots. As he jogs, he passes people, shops, restaurants, cars, never stopping or pausing, his progress uninterrupted either by obstacles or camera cuts. Again, his disassociation and alienation is emphasised by the film’s style, as the HD footage places the fibre of Brandon’s clothes and the texture of his skin and hair within an equally detailed environment – the reflections on water and oil patches, the sheen on car bodies and the detail of other people, not to mention the mottled walls of buildings. Everything is equally detailed, and so nothing is emphasised, our protagonist one feature among many, equally apparent and only discernible by the camera following his movement. This creates an intimacy between Brandon and the viewer, taking us (literally) along for his journey, sharing his isolation and disconnection which may be a reflection of many viewers’ experience of 21st century urban life.

Another version of this alienation appears during two scenes between Brandon and his co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). They have a dinner date in which Brandon explains his aversion to relationships, his longest being four months. The scene occurs in a single take, the camera focus slowly narrowing either through a zoom or tracking shot, drawing the viewer closer to this intimate conversation. Outside the windows of the restaurant, the New York street is once again exquisitely detailed in the high definition deep focus, the couple, such as they are, merely the details that we can hear. Later, the deep focus creates an even more isolating effect, as Brandon and Marianne go to a hotel room and begin kissing and undressing, but Brandon stops before they proceed to intercourse. It seems that if he has an emotional connection to a sexual partner, he cannot become fully aroused. His isolation is again emphasised by the high definition deep focus which allows the viewer to see what takes place outside: rain spattering on the floor-to-ceiling windows, cars passing on the roads outside, cranes at a nearby construction site. Urban life progresses, this failed attempt at intimacy occuring in the midst of indifference. Brandon is emotionally distraught but, cruelly, the camera remains on him even once Marianne has left, a tearful Brandon gazing out at the uncaring city which continues uninterrupted. The viewer’s focus cannot focus on Brandon and Marianne, because the background action is a constant distraction. This distraction expresses the alienating effect of urban life, perpetual motion and empty expanses, in which Brandon, at least, cannot connect.

The long takes express Brandon’s discipline and continuity, his sexual addiction compartmentalised alongside his work and home life. Even when Sissy arrives unexpectedly, Brandon surprising her in his shower, the discipline continues as their first heated conversation occurs in a single take, Sissy’s naked form seen as a reflection, expressing her separation from Brandon. In a later conversation, when they talk on Brandon’s sofa, the focus becomes shallower, reducing the TV in the background to a blur of indistinct movement which is situated between them. Even while Sissy tries to find some way into her brother’s compassion, he coldly rebuffs her, the indistinct image of the TV expressing the barrier between them. The scene occurs in another long take, but the shallower focus helps to use the mise-en-scene to express the characters’ strained relationship.

Shame 3

Amongst these scenes of long takes, there are also moments of discontinuity, especially during Brandon’s virtual breakdowns. When he is overcome by shame and throws out all his pornography, the scene is presented in short takes, punctuated by jump cuts as he sweeps magazines, videos and a laptop into bin bags and dumps the bags on the street. A more intense and indeed upsetting scene occurs later, when Brandon goes to the apartment of two prostitutes and engages in a furious but agonising threesome. The scene is a montage, cutting between the expressions of Brandon and the women, their pumping bodies and the room’s furniture. It may rank as one of the most uncomfortable presentations of sexual intercourse ever committed to film, bereft of intimacy or even simple pleasure, Brandon screaming as though under torture.

Not that the prolonged takes are far away, as in probably the film’s most distressing scene, Brandon returns home in a panic to find Sissy in the bathroom with her wrists slashed. His discovery is captured in a long take, but without sound, Brandon’s anguish expressed through his face, contorted into a howl of agony. Here the film expresses the ineffable – the unspeakable and incomprehensible pain at finding a loved one dead or dying. Such scenes are common in films – Heat features a very similar one – but Shame offers one of the most effective encounters with an attempted suicide. Once again, the long take prolongs the agony, lingering on Brandon to an uncomfortable degree.

Shame demonstrates remarkable cinematography and editing choices, as one is largely merciless and the other restrained. New York is used to great effect, the HD footage capturing the city in exquisite detail, which serves to demonstrate the isolation of the protagonist. In another heartbreaking scene, Brandon sinks into an almost foetal crouch in a wasteland part of the city, crying out for something beyond his addicted and hollow existence.

Shame 4

Once again, we see everything, the pores of his face as richly textured as the tarmac around him. This is one the great effects of HD, creating a visual palette in which people and environments are presented in equal detail (I have published elsewhere on the use of this in Collateral). It need not be used in this way – particular shots as well as depth of focus can still emphasise actors’ faces. But in the case of Shame, urban alienation is effectively conveyed through long takes, deep focus and high definition digital film.