Welcome to the second part of Frederick Tilby Jones’ fascinating examination of Action film editing. In this edition Frederick looks at the roots of the contemporary edit. A new section will be published each week.
One of the major theoretical debates regarding film narrative style has been centred around the distinction between classical and, what is often described as, “post-classical” Hollywood cinema. ‘The question’, as Warren Buckland and Thomas Elsaesser note, ‘is usually posited as: is it still “business as usual” in post-classical cinema, or do we need to change our vocabulary in order to “do justice” to the movies made in Hollywood since the mid to late 1970s(?)’.
Though the New Hollywood and the Blockbuster films of the 1980s appropriated and popularised number of stylistic, with regards to editing the dominant line of thought suggests that new techniques represent an “acceleration” of, as opposed to a complete break from, classical traditions. Consequently this chapter treats the post-classical period, despite the rapid development and innovation, as a continuation of the classical Hollywood cinema and examines the narrative of action film editing throughout, marrying practical sources and technical data with film theory and establishing a trend towards “post-continuity” style.
2.1 Classical Hollywood Cinema and Continuity Editing
‘A film’s story does not simply shine forth; as viewers, we construct it on the basis of the plot, the material actually before us.’
David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson and Janet Staiger, The Classical Hollywood Cinema
Central to the appraisal and appreciation of narrative in modern film studies is the system and style of production outlined by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson in their seminal work The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. Though the idea of a classical cinema can be traced back to the lectures of André Bazin given in 1950s, Bordwell et al. sidestep the European ideologically focussed arguments, and instead concern themselves with distinct conventions and patterns present within Hollywood cinema, utilising a cognitive psychology approach. For them ‘[v]iewers are seen as predisposed to look for the cues a film’s narrative provides, and then to organize the sensory data for processing information already available to the viewers’. As a result, a classical Hollywood narrative ‘should consist of a chain of causes and effects that is easy for the spectator to follow’.
Consequentially, the classical conception of editing demonstrates an adherence to certain continuity principles, which appeared in the formative period of Hollywood cinema between 1909 and 1928. As Bordwell et al. note, ‘the [need] to find a unified spatial structure, in which story events could take place’ led to the adoption of guiding editorial devices. The ‘cut-in point of view […], eyeline structures’, shot/reverse shot sequences, establishers, the 180 degree rule and cross-cutting keep the audience aware of the spatial and temporal geography of the film, allowing the film-maker ‘to constantly organis[e] the spectator’s attention’. These devices ‘confirm that action or movement in two distinct shots was continuous’, writes Valerie Orpen, and are ‘extremely effective because our eye and attention are sufficiently held by the action […] for the cut to be successfully camouflaged’.
The practical application of this system is aptly demonstrated in Karl Reisz and Gavin Millar’s The Technique of Film Editing. Designed specifically as a textbook, rather than ‘a book of editing theory’, it epitomises the continuity centred approach to editing: providing a brief history of the craft, before assessing the way in which scenes can be cut, illustrating this information with scenes from various classical films.
Discussing the cutting of action sequences Reiz and Millar note ‘the elementary difficulty of keeping the spectator informed of what is going on’. Using a chase sequence from Once a Jolly Swagman (1948), they examine cross-cutting, suggesting that ‘by cutting away from the race and then cutting back… , a lapse in time is implied… yet… the spectator believes he has seen it in its entirety’. This emphasis on guiding and informing the audience illustrates that maintaining a sense of continuity, both spatially and temporally, is the primary concern of the editor. If, for example, quick cutting or any other effect designed to increase the emotional impact of the sequence ‘involves confusing the spectator about the physical details of the scene, then the editor will have defeated his object’.
What is apparent from Reiz and Millar’s writing is the importance of maintaining a sense of continuity throughout the narrative. The reader is continually reminded ‘to keep the “plot” of the passage clearly in front of the spectator’, ‘to see that cross-cutting does not confuse the continuity’, ‘to give […] the illusion of continuous movement’.
2. 2 New Hollywood, New Attitudes
For many years […] that was the rule, [y]ou struggled to preserve continuity of three-dimensional space, and it was seen as a failure of rigor or skill to violate it […]. [But] what people finally remember is not the editing, not the camerawork, not the performances, not even the story – it’s how they felt.
Walter Murch, In The Blink of an Eye
It is no coincidence that Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which chronicles the rise and fall of “New Hollywood” (the first period of post-classical Hollywood), begins with a profile of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). After an uneventful run in the US, the film opened in London and was ‘more than a hit [it was] a phenomenon’. “The film pitted the hip and the cool against the old, straight and stuffy… Bonnie and Clyde was a movement movie; […] young audiences recognized it was theirs”.
Much of what set Bonnie and Clyde apart can be attributed to the style in which the film was cut. Dede Allen was a ‘pioneering editor who revolutionized editing’ and, as ‘a canny absorber of French New Wave influences’ her confrontational and economical style of cutting allowed ‘the bullets [to] hurt not only the characters, but the audience as well’. “At the time in Hollywood, a lot of what I did was considered bad editing”, recalls Allen. “We were using shorthand in Bonnie and Clyde because of the nature of the story… [Arthur Penn] would say, “Go through the film, make it move faster.” I did that two or three times, so it began to move faster and faster and it got better. I broke all my own rigid cutting rules about story, character and how a scene plays”.
Within two years this style, referred to by Allen as “energy cutting” was being pushed to extremes. The opening and closing gunfights in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) are amongst the most iconic and seminal sequences of the period, differentiated from previous Westerns by editor Lou Lombardo’s cutting. “I told Sam” recalls Lombardo, “that my concept in that street fight was to involve the audience. I wanted them to think they were in the middle of an explosion that went off around them… The street fight was 21 minutes long when I first cut it… it went out at four and a half minutes. I used a piece of everything I had in the 21-minute version. Instead of 20 feet long [approx. 13 seconds] the shots became shorter”.
In his book Post Classical Hollywood: Film Industry, Style and Ideology Since 1945, Barry Langford describes how, in The Wild Bunch, ‘temporal distortion is indissociably bound up with a reorganization of spatial relationships: destabilized (extended and dissected) time shapes dislocated (decentered, dynamised) screen space’. Suddenly, having been guided by classical narrative conventions, American audiences found themselves confronted by a potentially disorientating new cinematic language, punctuated by an accelerated shorthand style of editing. Yet, rather than rejecting this style, the majority embraced it. Both Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch were commercial successes with the former grossing $70 million worldwide (after an extended cinematic run) and the latter grossing $10 million domestically.
Though this style of cutting was not immediately popularised, the editing of Allen and Lombardo had set the trend for eighties and nineties Hollywood action movies. Regarding David Bordwell’s essay Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film, which argues that the new “post-classical” style ‘amounts to an intensification of established techniques’, one could posit that Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch were trailblazers in regards to ‘the [now] dominant style of American mass-audience films’. As well as being characterised by their high-tempo editing, the films make ample use of bipolar lens length and tight framings, as demonstrated by the stills taken from a scene in Bonne and Clyde pictured below (Fig.1-4). However, interviews with Allen and Lombardo indicate that the relationship between television and cinema cutting suggested in Bordwell’s essay had little or no effect on their innovations, whilst his observation that Penn and Peckinpah used to shoot ‘scenes of carnage with several cameras’, though probably a contributing factor to faster editing, fails to offer a complete explanation for their daring aesthetic.
In In The Blink Of An Eye, Walter Murch, editor of Apocalypse Now (1975) and The Godfather: Part II (1979), offers a possible explanation for this change in editing style that Bordwell’s “Intensified Continuity…” fails to explore. Murch presents his ‘Rule of Six’: the criteria by which he judges an effective cut, ranked and weighted according to importance. The list is as follows:
|5. Two-dimensional plane of screen||5%|
|6. Three-dimensional space of action||4%|
Though Murch concedes that these values ‘are slightly tongue in cheek’, the greatest stress is still placed on the ‘emotion’ of the cut. For Murch, what is most important is ‘how… you want the audience to feel’. He claims that what the audience will remember of a film ‘is not the editing, [but] how they felt’. Two-dimensional plane of screen and three-dimensional space of action (the preservation of which was central to continuity editing) are relegated to relative unimportance.
Yet, without the guiding hand of continuity narrative principles, one might argue that the spectator would be unable to follow the direction of the film. Murch suggests that ‘if the emotion is right and the story is advanced in a unique interesting way […], in the right rhythm, the audience will tend to be unaware of (or unconcerned about) editorial problems with lower order items [:] eye-trace, stage-line, spatial continuity etc.’. Consequentially, one can posit that the changes in editing style during the post-classical period came from an attitudinal change, the recognition by filmmakers that a number of Hollywood conventions were at best supplementary, at worst obsolete when guiding a cinema audience through a cinematic narrative. As Bordwell notes, ‘classical continuity contains built-in redundancies: shot/reverse shots reiterate the information about character position given in the establishing shot, […] [as] do eyelines and body orientation’. With intensified continuity ‘filmmakers have omitted some of [these] redundancies’.
2. 3 The Blockbuster and the Rise of Spectacle
Hollywood blockbusters trade to a large extent on the appeal of big spectacular, audio-visual effects: scale and impact
At the time of its release The Wild Bunch held the record number of cuts for a colour feature: 3,642 with an average shot length of approximately 3.2 seconds. However, by the late 1990s such quick cutting had become commonplace. As illustrated in the table below, derived by Barry Salt from approximately 5400 American films, there is a trend towards shorter ASLs in modern Hollywood cinema:
This trend is at least partially explainable by the rise of the Blockbuster (including, but not limited to, the action film) and, consequentially, spectacle, within mainstream cinema. From the late 1970s onwards, beginning with films such Star Wars (1977), the occurrence of spectacular set pieces began to increase in action-orientated cinema which, writes José Arroyo, ‘privileged… action over characterization, spectacle over depth’.
Though certain forms of spectacle, such as “lofty vistas”, do not necessarily indicate an increased rate of cutting or offer motivation for sacrificing continuity, action sequences, even in classical Hollywood do just that. Consider, for example, the iconic chariot race in Ben Hur (1959) with its rapid crosscutting and use of CU inserts. Furthermore, as spectacle, these sequences imply a different aim in their manufacture that leaves further reason to disregard continuity conventions. ‘Spectacle’, writes King, ‘is seen as a source of distraction or interruption’, it is about creating an emotional effect, supplementary to plot and character through on screen elements and the method of their presentation.
Describing the dynamic of a classical narrative model, Fred Pfeil posits that there is a structural ‘accumulation of unspent dramatic or suspenseful elements throughout the narrative’s so-called “rising action” into a force that is discharged most completely at the story’s climax’. With the rise of blockbuster cinema this was ‘largely superseded… by the amnesiac succession of self-contained bits and spectacular bursts’. Geoff King illustrates these models graphically, with the x-axis representing duration and the y-axis degree of spectacular impact. The classical model is represented by a gradual rise to a spectacular climax (Fig.5) and the blockbuster model by a series of peaks and troughs (Fig.6), described by Richard Dyer as ‘the movie as a rollercoaster’. We see this adopted by cinematic fare from Commando (1985) and Die Hard to Bad Boys (1995) and Mission: Impossible (1996).
The general consensus of theorists, regarding the reason for this change in balance between narrative and spectacle, is that it was driven by commercial motivation, with the film industry aiming not to produce satisfying classically balanced narratives, but to generate profit. Richard Maltby describes Hollywood as being governed by ‘a commercial aesthetic, essentially opportunistic in its economic motivation’, leading Geoff King to posit that ‘spectacle is a quality offered by Hollywood in its attempt to maintain the distinctive appeal of cinema, of the big-screen event’; it is a pleasure irreplaceable by potentially competing mediums such as computer games and television. By offering visceral thrills cinema is further able to differentiate itself from its competitors and craft a uniquely cinematic experience.