Welcome to the final part of Frederick Tilby Jones’ fascinating examination of Action film editing. Over the past four weeks Jones has examined the contemporary action picture to great effect. Frederick can be found on Twitter.
‘Every generation has defined what constitutes action and spectacle differently.’
The final post of this series will begin by further differentiating the effect of post-continuity cinema from other heightened styles of action filmmaking. It will, in (admittedly) broad strokes, present a case for this, much maligned, aesthetic as an important development in modern cinema style. The second part will attempt to validate this assertion by presenting post-continuity as a form of “controlled chaos”, aligning it with cinematic and artistic movements such as Abstract Expressionism and French (Cinematic) Impressionism, using this consideration as a springboard for a discussion on the judgment of the aesthetic, as well as of modern popular Hollywood cinema in general.
4.1 Subjective Temporality
‘Time, imprinted in the frame, dictates the particular editing principle; and the pieces that “won’t edit”… are those that record a radically different kind of time.’
The aesthetic of the Omaha Beach Landing in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) is often cited as a tour de force of action filmmaking. As the landing craft lowers its door the relative tranquility is shattered as the first soldiers are mowed down in a hail of machinegun fire. The camera begins to shake with the impact as the bullets fly towards the audience. Some clamber over the sides into the water and we are caught in temporary moments of confusion. A man weighed down by his kit sinks to the bottom and drowns. The water turns red with blood.
Writing for The Chicago Sun Times, critic Roger Ebert describes how ‘Spielberg’s camera makes no sense of the action. That is the purpose of his style. For the individual soldier on the beach, the landing was a chaos of noise, mud, blood, vomit and death. The scene is filled with countless unrelated pieces of time’. In short, Spielberg is trying to align the audience with his characters, to allow us to experience time and space as they do.
Despite temporal progression remaining constant, the way in which one experiences time is subjective. One may perceive time as continuous, but does not necessarily experience it as such. In “The time-emotion paradox”, Sylvie Droit Volet and Sandrine Gil demonstrate that ‘representation of a particular duration is highly context dependent. It depends on both intrinsic context, such as the emotional state at the onset of time processing, and extrinsic context, such as others’ activity rhythm… there is thus no unique, homogeneous time but instead multiple experiences of time’. Consequentially, for those soldiers on Omaha beach, afraid and stressed, the experience of time would have been distorted; seconds seem like minutes or minutes, seconds. As Walter Murch notes, film is able to emulate this temporal subjectivity through editing:
‘Time, in film, doesn’t correspond to time as we perceive it in real life, where someone getting up and crossing the room and going out the door apparently follows a sequence of causally linked events… In film, because of the nature and power of editing, people can pop up in the most unlikely places and it seems perfectly natural… Time in film is more as we experience it rather than as we perceive it: That man crossing the room was not consciously aware of every step he actually took, so in film we don’t show it all, unless we intend to make a point of it. We try instead to represent movement in a more economical, suggestive way. It’s our version of poetic compression.’
This idea of “poetic compression” is key to post-continuity’s function as an aesthetic of experience and differentiates it from Bordwell’s intensified continuity. Post-Continuity not only offers the visceral thrills of heightened continuity, but can also allow a subjective experience of time and, consequentially, space. However, the quality of this effect can vary from film to film. At its best it aligns its audience with the characters on screen as in The Bourne Ultimatum. Editor Christopher Rouse describes how his action editing is designed to emulate the interior feelings of the protagonist, amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon):
‘The way I’ve approached the action is, hopefully, reflective of the specifics of the Bourne character and his state of mind… He’s a man that’s never quite comfortable in his environment… We’re never particularly settled as he’s never particularly settled. As opposed to an action scene being an objective, studied piece of how a fight might occur, it’s more about being in his head… A fight isn’t a studied, choreographed event. It’s about chaos and frenetic moments and violence, you don’t always see everything that’s occurring. The closer you can bring the audience to that experience, and particularly the experience of the Bourne character, the closer you’re going to be to Matt and his character. As you move through the piece you’re not as distanced. You’re moving with him as he moves through it.’
However, unlike the carefully designed chaos of Bourne, the style, when used for its own sake, can also fail to act as a signifier. For example, writing about Battle Los Angeles Roger Ebert states that ‘its manufacture is a reflection of appalling cynicism on the part of its makers, who don’t even try to make it more than senseless chaos’. Yet his reviews of Greengrass’s Bourne films make no reference to the cutting, despite the similar, but sporadic use of post-continuity style. Clearly then, for it to maximise its effect, post-continuity should be embedded in a narrative; it must have context.
4.2 Conclusion: Judging Controlled Chaos
‘It is not because the cinema is language that it can tell such fine stories, but rather it has become a language because it has told such fine stories.’
In Film Structure and the Emotion System, drawing heavily on cognitive psychological theory, Greg Smith posits that ‘to sustain a mood, we must experience occasional moments of emotion. Film must therefore provide the viewer with a periodic diet of brief emotional moments’. His statement is mirrored by Richard Dyer who writes that ‘we seldom want the sense of movement and excitement, the speed by itself […] [;] we generally want the exhilaration and rush embedded in a fiction. Such fiction situates the thrills. They refer us to the world.’ Therefore, the majority of films that utilise post-continuity editing tend to base their action within a plot, even if it does not serve to advance the narrative. In this way, as a form of spectacle its usage is similar to Bordwell’s intensified continuity. In general it ‘is, in almost every instance, narratively situated’ and, generally, ‘does not exist for its own sake’, with modern action films still functioning as ‘a close blend of spectacular and narrative-orientated ingredients’.
However, post-continuity takes the intensified continuity style further. Rather than simply functioning within the traditional boundaries of spectacle it extends them: creating a subjectively immersive cinematic experience. Furthermore, it is a natural progression of action editing trends, following the epochs of classical and post-classical Hollywood cinema: a result of the overt exaltation of emotional effect over the invisibility of continuity conventions. As a result, it is important to dispel the myth championed by critics, which allows them to dismiss post-continuity aesthetic as ‘a lazy editing style in action movies these days’ made up of ‘unrelated shots of incomprehensible action’.
To challenge this assertion let us return to the sequence from the opening car-chase of Quantum of Solace. Presumably, the thirty plus shots used in the edited sequence represent only a tiny portion of the total rushes, since it is unimaginable production practice to shoot only three frames of an expensive set piece. Combined with the wealth of different set-ups (including establishing WSs), including those that ended up on the proverbial “cutting-room floor”, we know that there would have been considerable freedom in the edit and that a sequence adhering to continuity principles would have been an achievable outcome. Moreover, considering that the director shot the film so as to allow this range of options when assembling the footage, we can conclude that the “chaos” of the post-continuity car chase is a deliberate product of design.
Critically then, post-continuity editing aims to be chaotic. With how much deliberation or with what intention varies dramatically from picture to picture, but the underlying desire to cut in this fashion is apparent and is not easily achieved; since quick-cutting, even on digital NLE systems, is time intensive.
FIG. 19 (Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, Jackson Pollock, 1950)
With this in mind, how critics judge the post-continuity aesthetic should be called into question. In comparing it to a Jackson Pollock painting (for example Fig.19) in Chaos Cinema: Part 1, Storck has unintentionally offered an apt springboard from which to answer. Pollock’s Abstract Expressionist style (also known as ‘action painting’) is not attempting to depict anything literal; it represents, writes Erika Doss, the ‘abandon[ing] [of] the narrative and anecdotal style of regionalism in favour of [something] non-objective.’ Critic Scott Nye asks in response to Storck’s comparison:
‘How is [Pollock’s painting] any different from Michael Bay’s “explosive mixture of out-of-control editing, intrusive snatch-and-grab shots and a hyperactive camera” […], or the whole of Tony Scott’s Domino and Neveldine/Taylor’s Crank? Wasn’t Pollock’s whole point the release of control, and the invitation of the element of chaos into art?’
Comparing Michael Bay to one of the ‘revolutionar[ies] of the 20th century art world’ may seem blasphemous, but the post-continuity style adopted by him and his contemporaries loosely fits the description of a ‘free-form aesthetic… [that] abandoned the stylistic conventions of the past and was predominantly self-reflexive’ assigned to Abstract Expressionism.
There is further correspondence to be found between the post-continuity aesthetic and a respected artistic movement in film history. When David Bordwell described modern Hollywood action movies as ‘impressionistic’ he might have been referring to a general ‘artistic style that seeks to capture a feeling or experience rather than to achieve accurate depiction’, deriving from the fine art or literary forms of Impressionism, or to the French Impressionist Movement in cinema. Both styles are interesting points of reference: the first captures the subjective experience constructed by Post-Continuity, whereas the second suggests the avant-garde films of Jean Epstein, Louis Delluc and Abel Gance, whose style was motivated by ‘the directors’ belief about the cinema as an art form’.
In Film History: An Introduction Bordwell and Thompson describe the French Impressionists’ ‘interest in character subjectivity’, most often achieved through the ‘enhance[ment] of the photogénie’; a term coined by the movement to suggest ‘something more complex than an object’s simply being “photogenic”[…] [,] the quality which distinguishes a film shot from the original object photographed’. This was achieved mainly through the camerawork; photographic filters and optical effects featuring heavily in Impressionist cinema, but subjectivity was also accentuated through the editing. In Gance’s La Roue (1923) during moments of action and high-drama, there is extremely rapid-cutting unseen at this period in cinema. During a scene in which the hero, Sisif (Séverin-Mars), is, in despair, attempting to crash the train there is a sequences of shots made up of between only ‘five and fourteen shots’, the shortest of which, at the projection speeds of the time, would have lasted less than a quarter of a second. Another particularly pertinent example can be found in ‘the disorientating opening scene of Ménilmontant [(1926)], where the violence of a doublet murder is conveyed through details caught in close, short shots’, with some sequences, such as (Figs.20-23) with ASLs of less than a second. Here’, writes Bordwell and Thompson, ‘excitement is conveyed less through acting than through a rhythmic rush of swift details’.
FIGS. 20 + 21
FIGS 22 + 23
Though clear parallels exist in its rhythmic and emotive aspects, one could argue that the level of subjectivity and the interest in film’s artistic form ascribed to French Impressionist cinema are not primary concerns in the manufacture of most Hollywood action blockbusters. However, in the case of Tony Scott’s Domino and Greengrass’s Bourne films this is clearly not the case. The alignment of the audience with their characters is a key motivation for their use of a post-continuity aesthetic (as is also the case with such sequences in may Hollywood war films) and both challenge conventional film form. Consider the adoption of documentary film style in the Bourne films and the distortion of image in Domino, which utilises reverse double exposure techniques straight out of the Impressionist’s toolkit.
Finally, the discussion of post-continuity cinema in this context raises a question central to film studies: on what grounds we should judge popular cinema (?). Criticism of the post-continuity aesthetic indicates that Hollywood cinema is judged, for the most part, on narrative grounds, i.e. against the dominant mode established by classical Hollywood, whereby ‘what help[s] to maintain the immediacy and the flow of the action was good; what [does] not is bad’. There is an expectation for the audience to remain orientated within a film that extends throughout the narrative and for the editing to remain implicit, unnoticed and, at best, invisible. Due to the grammar of Hollywood, it is presumed that films should be easily readable.
However, James Monaco reminds us that ‘as with written and spoken languages, […] the syntax of film is a result of its usage not a determinant of it’. ‘Codes’, he writes, ‘are critical convenience- nothing more- and it would be wrong to give them so much weight that we were more concerned with the precise definition of the code than with the perception of the film’. This assertion is further supported by Victor Perkins, who in Film As Film: Understanding and Judging Movies, writes that: ‘the orthodox view of the cinema… treats artistry in terms of methods rather than of works, as if a “correct” use of the medium would itself provide both a guarantee and a standard of excellence’. Perhaps it is a lack of foreknowledge or expectation regarding the “correct” usage of cinema that explains post-continuity films’ success at the box office and acceptance by the general public. They see a post-continuity action sequence not as a botched continuity construction, but as a ‘full-on sensory assault dedicated to visual abstraction and the destruction of our notions of what cinema should be’.
Consequentially, critics and theorists of film studies should try to consider post-continuity style as something fresh, rather than the failure to conform to old norms; one should be free to embrace or despise the chaotic nature of the cutting without constant comparison with the organised shot structure of the continuity system. It is, undoubtedly an overt aesthetic, designed to assault the senses; to manipulate the audience’s emotions, but this should not be immediately condemned. At its best it can capture the visceral thrill of the chase, align us with a character and offer a subjective experience of time beyond the confines of continuity editing.
In conclusion, what post-continuity offers more than anything else is a challenge to, what Steven Shaviro describes as, ‘that great partisan[:] mise-en-scène over editing’. It is the extension of changes in Hollywood editing practice that, from the sixties onwards, encouraged editing to gain the expressive elements previously only afforded to mise-en-scène and cinematography. It has allowed Hollywood editing to develop from being a purely functional process to something extrovert, able to create its own meaning. Though post-continuity is, by no means, the first aesthetic movement to attempt this – one need look only to French Impressionism, Soviet Montage as well as the work of some classical era auteurs, such as Hitchcock (in Psycho) and Orson Welles (most notably in Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight (1966)), it is the first to popularise such a style in the commercially driven environment of mainstream Hollywood.
Of course, the effect post-continuity has on an audience, like the power of the style itself, is subjective. Though we can try to objectify the effectiveness of editing in relation to the aims of its creator, perhaps a better reflection on the process is offered by Dede Allen; “you’ve got a certain amount of material”, she says, ‘then you try to put it together in what seems to be the best way. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”