Occasionally I like to veer off the path of this blog and head into media reviews. Just because I can. It’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.
One of my pet peeves, as an editor, is the director who decides to cut his or her own film. I rarely see that work. Most of my students at USC do it because “only I can really understand what I want for my film.” There’s so much wrong with that statement. On almost every level.
First, that word understand. I’ve worked with directors who can’t understand their own films on levels that differ from their original conceptions. But the key to having the film accessible to many people, as opposed to a masturbatory self-involved work, is to realize that the best films appeal to people on multiple levels — levels beyond their author’s original conceptions. In order to do that, the filmmaker needs to be challenged. He or she needs to be helped to see other points of view. In classical terms, it’s the thesis/antithesis/synthesis flow. An original thesis, when challenged by an antithesis, creates an idea which is better than either one individually — a synthesis of ideas that can bring the film to a higher level.
If you are one of those director that can look at the raw footage, or even edit a scene together, look at it in the context of the movie & make a decision to cut out one of the best moments the actor gave because you realize that the scene is erroneous THEN SKIP THIS ARTICLE. Or if you have what you thought was one of the funniest jokes on paper, and even if it’s not 100% great delivery, but you choose to use it anyway because it “might” be good, then please READ ON.
I could argue that John Sayles’ best movies are those in which he did not edit. I think that James Cameron is a better director of editing than he is an editor (when I worked with Milos Forman I was always impressed with his editing acumen, but equally impressed that he worked with other editors to get the best picture). I certainly feel that Robert Rodriguez has long needed an editor (and a cinematographer, but I’ll let people better versed in that art to take up this arguement).
And, even though I really liked the film NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, I continue to feel that the Coen Brothers would have done better work if they had had someone to work with.
Now, I’ve never felt the strong pull that most people feel towards the Coen brothers’ films. I have enjoyed a few of them — BARTON FINK and THE BIG LEBOWSKI — but I normally found them too clever by half and, even in FARGO, more distanced from their characters than involving. I’ve enjoyed the laser penetration of Peter Stormare in FARGO, but I can’t say that I found any of the characters in their films worth spending much time with, aside from John Turturro’s tortured writer character in FINK, and the fun of The Dude in LEBOWSKI.
Now, NO COUNTRY comes along and I’m almost ready to jump over to their side, thanks to some amazing performances completely in tune with the story and filmmaking of the piece. But there is enough holding the film back that I doubt that I’ll ever jump over to the side of director/editors.
The shape of the lead characters in NO COUNTRY is particularly fine. Javier Bardem, well-deserving of his Academy Award, plays a character who is consistently driven, but seems well-understood by the filmmakers. Josh Brolin, while much more enigmatic and slightly drawn, manages to build a steady, interesting performance, even against Bardem’s juggernaut of a role.
I’m less entranced by Woody Harrelson’s and Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, however. I don’t believe that I need to have everything explained to me in order to like a film. Far from it. But I like to have characters who, in the words of a director I once worked with, “earn their moments.” To put it in another way, I want a character’s behavior in a film to grow out of what we know about him or her, not just because it says so in a script.
But that is one of the hardest things for writer/directors to do. They live inside their characters heads for so long, and have had so much discussion and interaction with the actors playing those characters, that it is extremely to see connections when they don’t really exist. It is way too easy to ascribe more to a look or a body movement then a normal audience would.
Even editors are prone to falling into this trap, though it’s one that we train ourselves to fight. In order to freshen our view of our films we use preview screenings. They help to ground us. When I worked on the movie HAIR, we had a screening in which someone, in the discussion group afterwards (we didn’t call them “focus groups” back then, and we didn’t have NRG Research to run them for us), mentioned that he “really like the part where Claude’s sister watched Treat Williams dance on the table.”
The problem was that Claude didn’t have a sister in the film. This audience member was confused. And while we’d never recut a movie based on one comment, if enough people can’t follow plot or character, then it’s time to look at what we know about our film.
The real problem for writer/director/editors is that there is precious little opportunity to have someone say “Wha??” There is less day-to-day input from the world outside the director’s mind.
And, even with some preview screenings and good producers (Scott Rudin may be the most interesting producer in the world today, along with Christine Vachon, in terms of the variety of projects he brings to the screen), the world of filmmaking just gets too insulated. Where was the person who asked the Coen Brothers to step back and see if Harrelson’s character went for caricature and plot, instead of real contrast to Bardem’s? Where was the person who discussed the shaping of the Brolin death scene, and how it impacted the rest of the film’s energy and emotion?
[As an aside, even though I didn’t like the choice, I’m not going to fault the film for its choice to hand off the film from Brolin to Jones two-thirds of the way through. But I am going to note that, the way in which was done, replaced one character’s more interesting search with another less developed one. It was an imbalance that the film never recovered from.]
In the best of all worlds, who would have been able to ask those and other questions about the choices being made? Who would have advocated for the audience’s side?
It would have had to been an editor. And that is what a good, honest, direct editor can bring to a project, that a director cannot. Not possible, not even close. Even with really really great directors.