We Cut Out The Dirty Parts

29 01 2008

Into The WildI thought today of a cab ride I took back in the seventies in New York City. I was delivering ten-minute editorial reels of film from one part of the city to another — for a looping session, if I remember correctly. As I pulled up in front of the 1600 Broadway building and was getting my fiber boxes of film together, the cabbie asked what I did for a living. Rather than explain that I was an apprentice editor (which would have required more explanation than I had time for), I said that I worked in film editing.

“Ahhh,” he replied, understanding everything. “You cut out the dirty parts.”

I am reminded of that story after reading an infuriating post by Alex Remington (bombastically entitled “Who Should Win The Oscars“) on The Huffington Post giving his opinions about the Oscar races in the non-Top Six categories, what the headline writer calls the “Teaser Categories.” Frankly, I’m not sure what gives Remington the qualifications to talk about filmmaking. His biography on the site notes that he is “an editorial assistant at The Washington Post” and that he “blogs about the Atlanta Braves at Chop-N-Change, and, with E.J. Dionne, moderates the online Washington Post politics discussion group E.J.’s Precinct.”

Now there’s a set of cinematic qualifications. (You can remove the Heavy Irony signs at this point.)

Here is what he has to say about Into The Wild:

Into the WildJay Cassidy A beautiful movie, but the editing isn’t what makes it remarkable. Sean Penn’s restrained direction, Emile Hirsch’s impressive performance, Hal Holbrook’s lovely cameo, and the gorgeous Alaskan landscape are what give this movie its emotional core. In fact, the only time the movie slips are when it breaks the fourth wall and shows its formal composition, as with Eddie Vedder’s recognizable voice singing pedestrian original songs, or when the occasional narration cuts into the narrative.

I’m going to repeat part of that first line for you — “the editing isn’t what makes it remarkable.” From his comments on The Bourne Ultimatum (in which he talks about MTV-style editing), and There Will Be Blood (in which he complains about the editing because the move was too long) it is clear that Remington falls into the large group of people who assume that an editor’s job is to make splices. If a film is too long, the editor didn’t make enough of them. If a film “skips the climax” (his complaint about No Country For Old Men) it’s because the editor made too many splices. (he doesn’t comment on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, presumably because it didn’t fit into a schedule in which he is too busy looking for off-season news about the Atlanta Braves).

For Remington, the editor isn’t a storyteller — he’s a splicemaker.

Now, I had my own issues with Into The Wild, mostly having to do with the film’s unwillingness to explore the psychological aspect of a man who was so egocentric and detached from human beings that he could hurt people who were genuinely open and understanding of him. But that isn’t an editing issue — it’s a point of view issue.

The idea that the direction of a film (“restrained” in Remington’s words), the acting (“impressive” and “lovely” — though I’d hardly call Holbrook’s role a “cameo”), and the cinematography (“gorgeous”) can be separated from the way in which those elements are edited into a film is completely and utterly laughable. The way in which the story of Penn’s film unfolds is all about editing. I’m not saying that this is Cassidy’s sole responsibility, and neither would he (I’m sure). But I’m saying that the editing of a film is about threading the performances and the story and the cinematography. Every one of us knows of occasions when we’ve improved performances in the editing room, or made the story more opaque, or omitted “beautiful” wide shots in favor of character-building close-ups. As I tell my students, nothing ends up in a final film by accident. Something may have happened accidentally on set — though that happens less frequently than we’d think — but the choice to use it in the film is intentional.

My point is quite straightforward here. Editing is more than making things move flashily across the screen. It’s more than cutting out areas of the film that critics would find boring. It’s more than making sure that the audience gets what it wants. It’s more than cutting out the dirty parts.

Though it certainly is partially about all of those things, editing is really about shaping the story told in a work (film, commercial, installation, et al). And that storytelling and shaping is what makes editing a combination of all of the arts that go into making a film. To think anything different is to completely misunderstand what filmmaking is all about.

[In the low blow department, I’m going to quote from another portion of Remington’s article in which he gives the following reason why Michael Giacchino’s score for Ratatouille should win for best musical score:

I honestly don’t remember the score, but I’m going to vote for Ratatouille by default in any category like this where I have no idea.

Hey, I know he’s being clever here. However, in my mind, cleverness doesn’t trump knowledge.]

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15 responses

29 01 2008
baseball » We Cut Out The Dirty Parts

[…] Norman wrote a fantastic post today on “We Cut Out The Dirty Parts”Here’s ONLY a quick extractHis biography on the site notes that he is “an editorial assistant at The Washington Post” and that he “blogs about the Atlanta Braves at Chop-N-Change, and, with EJ Dionne, moderates the online Washington Post politics discussion group … […]

3 02 2008
Editing is Storytelling at FreshDV

[…] “We Cut Out The Dirty Parts” Norman Hollyn discusses public perception of the craft of editing, and how those impressions […]

4 02 2008
editblog

Very nice article. It’s always said that you don’t notice good editing which means we work hard to make our work unseen! That’s editing….

5 02 2008
Eric

It seems the growth (and price decline) of digital editing carries with it the assumption that anyone can edit. As if suddenly, editing is no longer a craft but a sequence of button pushing and “presto!” a finished film. Where did this opinion originate?

The cost of anything has no relation to the quality of the output or skills of the operator. It’s what a person does with what they have.

A dated comparison but is Mario Andretti any less of a race car driver when he’s behind the wheel of a Honda Civic?

5 02 2008
Jason Scott

I think you meant “Heavy Sarcasm”, not “Heavy Editing”.

And I hope anyone commenting on films is required to have specific film degrees and credentials before doing so…..

5 02 2008
Norman

Nope, they don’t have to have degrees, just some knowledge to back up what they’re talking about.

Yeah, I probably meant “Heavy Sarcasm” not “Heavy Irony”. You know what Sheryl Crow said though…

5 02 2008
  links for 2008-02-05 by andydickinson.net

[…] We Cut Out The Dirty Parts “Editing is more than making things move flashily across the screen. It’s more than cutting out areas of the film that critics would find boring. It’s more than making sure that the audience gets what it wants. It’s more than cutting out the dirty p (tags: editing, video, storytelling) […]

5 02 2008
David J. Bondevitch, MPSE, CAS

Nice article.

I’m always amazed that people who have never done anything in the industry think that they are qualified to judge any category other than Best Picture. Even acting awards are hard to judge when the performance is subtle. And don’t get me started trying to explain the difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing to someone who hasn’t done both.

5 02 2008
Norman

Good point David on the Sound Editing/Sound Mixing confusion. Most people, and I include many people in the Academy, just lump the two of them together. “Hey, it sounded like they used a lot of cool sound effects, so I’ll just tick off these boxes here for them.”

11 02 2008
Alex Remington

Obviously, I have no qualifications to write about movies — that’s what makes the interweb so maddening. And I hope that you’ll forgive me for having infuriated you. But I’ll go ahead and defend myself anyway.

Holbrook is really only onscreen for about 10 minutes. Judi Dench won an Oscar for being onscreen for less time in Shakespeare in Love, as we all remember, but that doesn’t mean that the word “cameo” isn’t an apt description of the fact that they were both in less than 10% of screen time.

What a director does is tell the story of the film. Directors frequently sit in the editing room, imperiously overseeing the actual editing process, and depending on how authoritarian the director, the editor (the one the Oscars nominate, the one named in the credits) may have very little say in how the movie is put together. The editing process is where fat is trimmed, pace is established, chronology is broken, and sorts of other neat arty things happen. Into the Wild was effectively languid, but the editing wasn’t, in my untrained eyes, technically remarkable.

Orson Welles had something to say about accidents on set: the director’s job is to “preside over accidents.” That doesn’t mean I know anything about making a movie, but it does mean that a great deal of what appears in a movie didn’t appear in anyone’s storyboard or fevered dreams before it got in front of the camera.

11 02 2008
Alex Remington

Also, having said all that, I freely admit that I’m far less qualified than you are to speak about movies generally or your field of study, instruction, and vocation specifically. Your experience and knowledge are far, far greater than mine, and it’s very probable that my ignorance has totally misled me. I really can only go from what I see on screen, and even there, I have seen fewer movies than you have. So, odds are, you’re right and I’m wrong. Still, thanks for reading.

11 02 2008
Norman

Alex,

You seem like a really nice guy, so my apologies for my tone in the post. Once again, my foot-in-mouth disease has gotten to me.

However, my point basically was that editing is involved in all of the things that you liked about INTO THE WILD, but said had nothing to do with editing. As I say in my classes, nothing ends up on screen by accident. It may have happened on the set by accident, but the editing process determines whether to keep them or not and, more importantly, how to use them. A good director is involved in a lot of the process before shooting and during shooting. And afterwards.

The Oscar for editing is called “Best Achievement in Film Editing” not “Best Film Editor.” It is impossible to know who has done what in the editing room. In fact, in a well-run editing room, there is such a powerful collaboration that it is impossible to know. It isn’t about a director’s authoritarianism at all. Well edited films are a result of collaboration. Sure, it’s cool that they actually hand out the Oscar to an actual (usually up-tight) editor as an emissary for the editing of the film. But it is the editing that is rewarded.

As a final note — I’m not a big believer that just because I’m a teacher I know so much more than everyone else. However, one thing that I can say, is that when I started teaching here I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I edited. Most of us claim that we edit from the gut, but I was trying to figure out how my gut knew what to tell me, and to pass that along to students. That is what I get paid the teeny-tiny bucks for.

And, once again, I apologize for getting personal in the initial post. It wasn’t about you, it was about what you wrote. And it wasn’t ignorance I really was complaining about, it was about general perceptions about editing.

12 02 2008
The Art and History of Editing « H o l l y n - w o o d (Norman, that is)

[…] and secondly the misperception on the public’s part about what we do (see my entry on “We Cut Out The Dirty Parts“). My students at USC go into the industry in one of two ways, generally. They can enter as […]

13 02 2008
Alex Remington

Thanks for the explanation, and no hard feelings. Clearly, one of these days I should clearly take one of your classes!

13 02 2008
Norman

You’re more than welcome to.

Short of that, though, next time you’re headed out to Los Angeles drop me a note and we’ll get together. No classes, just beer.

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