Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second is delighted to introduce Frederick Tilby Jones to the fold, with this remarkable new series on the cut of the action movie. This contemporaneously concerned examination is truly insightful piece of work. A new section will be published each week.
‘The development of film technique… has been primarily the development of editing.’
Vsevolod Pudovkin described editing as ‘the basic creative force, by power of which… soulless photographs are engineered into living cinematic form’, whilst Claude Chabrol compared it to doing ‘the washing up’. For William Friedkin editing ‘is the language of filmmaking’, whereas for Andre Bazin it was ‘strictly a device out of the expressionists’ arsenal, with a potential, at best, for some kind of gross ordering, and, at worst, for serving as a crutch for weakly conceived and composed images.’
Editing holds a contentious position, pitched as either the key to cinema or a necessary evil, exalted by academics and ignored by journalists. Yet, despite this, nobody with an understanding of the filmmaking process would question the immeasurable role the edit plays in shaping a film. In the words of Frank Capra: ‘films are made both on the set and in the cutting room’ and the decisions made in the edit determine our perception and, by extension, reception of a movie. Through different modes of cutting our attention can be drawn to or directed away from specific nuances in a performance, signification can be made manifest or obscure and actions can be compressed or expanded, exalted or relegated, made to appear subjective or objective. When we sit in the cinema and gaze up at the flickering images, editing guides us through the on-screen world, directing our attention. It tells the story without being seen.
In fact, editing is often described as “the invisible art” and, within classical Hollywood cinema, has aimed to ‘express or connect “invisibly” or seamlessly’. This is due to filmmakers’ adherence to the ‘continuity system’, the basic purpose of which, write Bordwell and Thompson, ‘is to allow space, time, and action to continue in a smooth flow over a series of shots’. Its primary function is to advance the narrative in a fashion that allows the spectator to remain orientated in regards to diegetic action. As the dominant form of film editing, it keeps graphic qualities… continuous, figures… balanced and symmetrically deployed in the frame [and] the overall lighting tonality… constant.’ In short, the classical continuity system aims to guide the audience through a story, clearly and concisely, to stabilise the viewer, even when dealing with the potentially chaotic genre of action cinema.
However, these rules no longer seem to apply. In a 2008 The Guardian blog entry titled “Action sequences should stir, not just shake”, critic Anne Billson asserts that ‘no one knows how to film action anymore… today’s action movies get our adrenaline flowing and make our pulses beat faster – but for all the wrong reasons.’ She continues, ‘we’re not reacting to whatever action is taking place on screen; we’re responding to deafening sound effects and hyperactive editing.’
Here Bilson articulates a feeling held by many cinemagoers: that action sequences have become incomprehensible. Across the blogosphere, discontented cinephiles grumble about “shakycam” and ADD cutting, whilst film critics bemoan the abandonment of classical narrative cinema. Academia also sat up and took note, with David Bordwell declaring that recent scenes of ‘combat or pursuit’ are ‘blurred’ and ‘confusing’. Central to his criticism is the editing; we are now ‘presented with a flurry of cuts calibrated not in relation to each other or to the action, but instead suggesting a vast busyness’, he writes, ‘here camerawork and editing [don’t] serve the specificity of the action but overwhelm [or] even bury it.’
The prominent targets of this discourse tend to be blockbusters, big-budget actioners, including those directed by Michael Bay, Tony Scott and Paul Greengrass. Yet, despite the negative critical attention these films receive, they still boast some of the highest box-office figures ever recorded. The Bourne Series (2002-2012), for example, has amassed box-office revenue approaching $1 billion, whilst Bay’s Transformers (2007-2011) saga has broken $2 billion. Clearly then, this action aesthetic has mass appeal and popularity within the commercially driven film industry.
Consequentially, theorists have attempted to define and periodise it. In 2010, while analysing Gamer (2009), theorist Steven Shaviro coined the term “post-continuity”, suggesting a demotion of importance in, and a departure from classical continuity conventions. Meanwhile, Mathias Storck, a film postgraduate at UCLA, popularly described such films as “Chaos Cinema”, representing a complete displacement from continuity principles.
Furthering the ideas conceived by Shaviro and Storck, this series will investigate and analyse this trend in film editing style, examining the history of its development, the conditions of its existence and its value as an aesthetic. To begin, next week’s post will focus on the transition from the classical to the post-classical period of Hollywood cinema, a transition marked by the emergence of the Hollywood New Wave and, later, the arrival of the blockbuster, both of which initiated new approaches to film form and, as a result, new developments in editing.
I would like to thank my tutors Jon Burrows and José Arroyo from the University of Warwick for their invaluable guidance and support in conceiving and delivering this project.