I 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 Wild” Jay 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.]