My Favorite Worst Review EVER

17 06 2008

Roger Ebert with his director, Russ MeyerEditors almost NEVER get mentioned in film reviews, unless it’s a chase film with lots and lots of cuts. But allow me to tell you the story of when I got mentioned in a Roger Ebert review.

Yep, I’m practically famous.

Years ago, I worked on a movie called MAD DOG TIME, which was actually tons of fun, and a trip and a half to edit. It starred Jeff Goldblum as a laconic and top mob hit man who, while his mob boss Richard Dreyfuss is out of town (locked up in a funny bin) has to fend off hit man after hit man (including a delicious Gabriel Byrne) while balancing two girlfriends — Diane Lane and Ellen Barkin. It also had small roles by Burt Reynolds, Joey Bishop (the director’s dad), Kyle MacLachlan, Henry Silva, Michael J. Pollard, Billy Idol, and the amazing Gregory Hines.

When it came out it was, to put it kindly, pilloried by most critics, who felt it was too reverential to Tarentino, without having the talent or class of Tarentino.

Now, I have my own feelings about the film, which are far more positive than the reviews. But I did love the mention that I got from Ebert:

Mad Dog Time” is the first movie I have seen that does not improve on the sight of a blank screen viewed for the same length of time. Oh, I’ve seen bad movies before. But they usually made me care about how bad they were. Watching “Mad Dog Time” is like waiting for the bus in a city where you’re not sure they have a bus line. …

What were they thinking of? Dreyfuss is the executive producer. He’s been in some good movies. Did he think this was a script? The actors perform their lines like condemned prisoners. The most ethical guy on the production must have been Norman Hollyn, the editor, because he didn’t cut anybody out, and there must have been people willing to do him big favors to get out of this movie

“Mad Dog Time” should be cut into free ukulele picks for the poor.

Now that’s a review that I didn’t show up on my resume!

George Orwell’s Rules For Writers

4 06 2008

George OrwellCrawling around in my old computer files the other day I came across this list of six rules for writers which, sad to say, no longer seem to be on the site from which I stole them (CCSN in Nevada). I reprint them here because the more people who see this, the better place the world will be:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive [voice] where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Aside from the fact that I have probably violated all six of these rules during my blogging and writing career, it occurs to me that most of these rules have their equivalent in film and video work (gotta find a better term for what we do) since they basically boil down to this “Treat the reader like an adult and don’t talk down to them.” I find, both at school and professionally, that there is a terrible tendency to over explain or over obfuscate. I know those sound contradictory, but they’re not. I find shots held on way past the point where they’re giving any new information because “the audience needs to get it.” I’ve also found director being deliberately obscure because “I don’t want to pander to common sensibilities.”

Most student movies tend to be too long (I should know, mine were and are, thankfully, not available on the Web — you should see my version of an unproduced Antonin Artaud script) and, often, too obscure. It’s as if the filmmakers were deliberately challenging the audience to be engaged. And, if my own experience is any judge, that is often just what they are doing — saying that “You should come to me, not the other way around.”

Needless to say, I now totally disagree with my earlier self on this. If I have anything at all to say to an audience, I need to make them understand it. Otherwise, why would I even show the film to anyone else other than myself. For me, and for most filmmakers, our works exist as a way to touch other people. Of course, we are constantly struggling with how much to reveal, how clear to be, and how to explain ourselves. But, ultimately, we want to explain ourselves to others.

And so, with apologies to George Orwell, I present my version of his six rules:

  1. Never use a filmic device that has been so overused that it is instantly identifiable.
  2. Never hold on longer on a shot or a scene than you need to in order to deliver its point.
  3. If you don’t need a shot, a line of dialogue, or a scene, always cut it out.
  4. Never use objective shots where you can use subjective ones.
  5. Never be deliberately obscure with a script point, unless you plan to reveal its meaning later (and keeping its meaning to your audience is important to your story telling).
  6. Don’t do anything obnoxiously obvious, garish or horrifying.

Somehow, I don’t expect these rules to go down in history (or even to appear on the CCSN website, like Orwell’s did. But I do think that they’re a start to a discussion about the audience/filmmaker balance.

Photos For The Imperfect World

8 05 2008

Last month, I talked about how a few years ago, a student of mine graduated and went to work for THE REAL WORLD and how he discovered that the editing there, turned reality into a cruel joke.

It’s a bit in poor taste, but this video advertisement for FotoPrix, shows just how photos and film can lie. Not that we need any real demonstrations of this, but it’s always good to be reminded.

Explaining The Horrifyingly Unexplainable

6 05 2008

One of my classes is editing a feature film that is simultaneously being finished by its actual director, producers and editor out in the Real World right now. It’s a really adorable indie film about dating and turning thirty, and before you run for the hills, let me also say that it has (at its core) a really neat, somewhat science fictional, concept that I’d tell you all about if I weren’t sworn to secrecy by the filmmakers.

The problem, though, is that you’ve got to explain the rules of this concept so the audience can go along for the ride.

The class struggled with how to do that — without slowing the movie down and without drowning the audience in details all at once, so the film’s comedy could come through. It was a tough balancing act and one which the actual filmmakers ultimately solved much better than the class did.

Still, the interesting point about all of this is “how do you explain the horrifyingly unexplainable?” Or, to be more precise, the “horrifyingly difficult to explain.” The rule of thumb in feature-length films is that you have about ten minutes to do whatever you want with the audience before they start demanding to know just what kind of movie they’re watching. If you spend too much of that time explaining, that’s what they feel the movie is going to be like the whole way through. And that, in general, is poison.

I’ve spent many weeks in editing rooms trying to get to the script’s inciting incident more quickly, collapsing the first 30 minutes down to 15 or 10 minutes. For some reason, scripts always are written without thinking about that (or, if the writers do think about it — and I’m actually sure they do, I’m just being catty here) and then we get to speed everything up in editing. Sometimes well, and sometimes not so wel..

These thoughts come to mind on reading John August’s blog post yesterday called “A somewhat derivative challenge.” August is a screenwriter and director (of THE NINES) who has been publishing this dynamite blog for a few years, in which he gives a great tour of what it means to be a working filmmaker in Hollywood. Along the way he has published tutorials on screenwriting which are, often, much better than anything McKee or Truby have put in their books (his post on How To Introduce A Character is, in my mind, brilliant).

Yesterday he gave his readers a writing challenge, and it’s a doozy:

Have a character explain derivatives, as used in the financial industry. (The thing that’s like a stock, not the thing that you learned in calculus.)

The speaker should be knowledgeable, and the listener should be a layman, i.e. a proxy for the audience. What are their names? What’s the story? What’s the genre? You decide, to the degree it matters. My suggestion would be to create a scenario in which the term needs to be explained — but only to the degree necessary. Metaphors and similes are powerful tools.

You’re welcome to write as much of the scene as you want, but the focus is on the explanation. The winning entry might be one sentence long.

How many times have you had to sit through a scene in a film where there is a long, boring explanation from a scientist to a reporter about some scientific concept which will become important later in the film. Or watched as the coal miner explained to someone (anyone!) how coal was removed from the earth and how there were plenty of safety measures to make sure that no one got hurt doing it (because you knew that someone was going to get caught in a mine collapse later in the film)?

In short, how do you explain the difficult to explain? And, parenthetically, still make it interesting to watch?

The dealine for his competition is this Thursday, May 8th. So I’ll be interested to see how people solve the problem.

And then I’ll shut up about having to do all of this heavy lifting in the editing room.

And reality shows are… edited!!! Fake News at 11!

18 04 2008

In a news story that should surprise absolutely no one, the Hollywood Reporter notes that this past week’s premiere of Discovery Channel‘s “Deadliest Catch” is in hot water (insert comment on terrible jokes here) for editing two pieces of film together!!

Well, of course, it’s not that simple, and the details lead us into a complex discussion of how editorial manipulation works. The show, which is called a “documentary” by the Channel and not a “reality show” (we’re trying to parse the difference here, without success), edited two shots of a storm wave and a flooded room that were shot on different days, to give the illusion that they happened together. As the Reporter explains:

Mammoth waves smash an Alaskan crab fishing boat called the Wizard, sending large swells crashing over its deck. Inside, alarmed crew members discover that their stateroom is flooding with incoming seawater.The sequence suggests that the fishermen are in danger of sinking as a violent tempest tosses huge waves against the boat.

But here’s the not-so-deadliest catch:

The boat flooded in September.

The huge storm waves were from October.

Several years ago, an ex-student of mine sent me an e-mail talking about a job he was working on — one of the MTV Real World seasons. In shocked tones he talked about a scene in which two of the contestants traded insults while using workout equipment in a gym. The thing was — the two of them had been filmed on different days. They had never been in the gym together.

Frankly, I was shocked that he was shocked (he was an editing student, after all), but the way in which footage can be manipulated for effect is quite powerful and, sometimes, surprising.

It’s an axiom that one of the things we editors do, is to create realities for the audience. We manipulate them in order to understand the feelings that the story needs to engender in them. There’s nothing terrible or evil about this manipulation usually. It’s what we need to do in order to best tell the story. (This implies that we have a story that we need to tell — though that’s a different post, one I’ll get to when we talk about The Lean Forward Moment).

In a documentary, of course, we have a responsibility to not lie to the audience about what it is they’re seeing, but the word “lie” is sometimes a tricky thing to pinpoint. We’re making choices as soon as we point the camera in one direction as opposed to another. We’re making choices as soon as we show someone’s reaction to another person’s actions or statements, and we are further refining that decision when we choose to show the reaction immediately after the line, or wait twelve more frames. We manipulate the audience as soon as we put a line of dialog or a voice over over one particular shot, as opposed to another.

Is there anyone out there who honestly believes that any filmmaking can be without choices or manipulation? If so, let me know — I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

In the case of “Deadliest Catch” the implication (as the article mentions) is that the waves caused the flooding in the stateroom. Here would be my question to the producers — was the flood caused by a storm, or was it caused by some idiot forgetting to shut a valve (for instance)? Was the water in the stateroom put there because of a storm? Because, according to the news story, that was the implication that was clear from the edit, correct?

You can see where I’m going with this, though it certainly is a slippery slope. Among other things, one of questions that we should ask ourselves when thinking about this puzzle is “How close is the implication to the truth?” What is the storytelling manipulation and how great is it? (As a side note, I’ve done expert witness testimony about a similar topic — how editing creates implied feelings and perceived facts) At the core of this, for me, is the question of just how much and what sort of choices are made in the editing.

Editing has the power to make us feel. No doubt about that. Anyone who has edited has seen that. And that is both the power and the responsibility that we have.

How Do YOU Decide What Movies To See?

6 04 2008

Anne Thompson, in last week’s Daily Variety, has a column about the recent spate of firings of newspaper and magazine film critics. She makes some valuable points about how her students at USC can’t name any film critics besides Roger Ebert (thanks to his television show). Contrast that with the era when names like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris were known for their reviews and their theories.

While I don’t disagree with her facts (and, as a former film reviewer, I have a certain sympathy for those people who have to sit through five or six horrible films a week and then write about them) I find her conclusions both obvious and unregrettable.

Younger moviegoers are fickle; they’re just as likely to play Guitar Hero or download episodes of “The Office” from iTunes. And the studios, for the most part, continue to bank on short-term, wide-release youth movies vs. riskier, execution-dependent movies for adults.

Thus, as boomers age and their subscriptions expire, the increasingly desperate economics of newspaper publishing are forcing aging movie critics out the door. And younger ones too.

We hear the same lament from studio heads and a plethora of old media types. The democratization of the media also applies to critics as well.

These students — and today’s youth auds in general — more often get their movie info straight from the studio marketing departments, who couldn’t be happier. These kids go to YouTube, Yahoo Movies and Apple to find trailers. As they surf the Web, bits of movie flotsam and visuals planted by the studios on MSN Movies or IGN or JoBlo eventually cross their eyeballs. But they also listen to their friends more than any authority figures, and distrust obvious studio hype.

I don’t know about you, but I find that holding up Sarris and Kael as examples of all film critics is like pointing to Hank Aaron and Mikey Mantle as examples of all baseball players — both major and minor leagues. In fact, I’ve only once found a daily film critic who could tell me anything about a film that was illuminating — and Art Murphy is no longer with us. I also find Elvis Mitchell’s interviews/critiques of films on his KCRW show “The Treatment” to be amazingly insightful and educational. Most film critics are really no more than reviewers, rehashers of basic plot and opiners on whether they liked performances, cinematography or direction.

I’m not saying that I don’t like reading newspaper and magazine critiques of films. In rare cases, I can also use them for viewing decisions. But, in general, I have never used reviews (printed or otherwise) as a guide to help me decide whether I should see a film or not. I didn’t when I was 18 and I don’t now that I’m 108.

So, how do we decide what we want to see?

If you’re like me, it’s a combination a number of factors — subject matter, my mood at the time, the proximity of the theater, the creative factors behind the film (I’ll go see most any movie that Scott Rudin, Sam Mendes or Robert DeNiro is involved in), and how well the film’s and my schedule overlap. And, perhaps most importantly, what my friends and colleagues are saying about it.

I will sometimes see a movie before any of my friends, and then the other factors become prominent. But the so-called water cooler effect (in which a group of office buddies grouped around the water cooler creates buzz about any particular subject) is biggest in my mind. For years, publicity departments at the studios, have spent millions of dollars trying to create that water cooler buzz, to greater or lesser impact. I remember that buzz boosting BORAT but look what it did to THE POSTMAN.

The obvious point here is that the Internet, in general, and social networking, in particular, has become this decade’s water cooler. Reviews of films that I used to get from my neighbor, have now moved onto Facebook and Rotten Tomatoes. That’s no different than it used to be, it’s just larger and more ubilquitous.

Thompson makes two very cogent, and somewhat depressing points, later in the article.

Over the years, critics helped audiences appreciate the likes of Orson Welles‘ “Citizen Kane,” Alfred Hitchcock‘s “Psycho,” Stanley Kubrick‘s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Arthur Penn‘s “Bonnie and Clyde,” Bernardo Bertolucci‘s “Last Tango in Paris,” Brian De Palma‘s “Dressed to Kill,” Robert Altman‘s “The Player,” the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” Where would we have been without them? It will soon be up to Pajiba or Cinematical Indie to influence readers to seek out small releases once heralded by critics.


There’s hope for critics at well-funded magazines: John Powers soldiers on at Vogue, Anthony Lane and David Denby compete for space at the New Yorker, Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum are well-read at EW, and David Edelstein writes and blogs at New York Magazine, which has invested heavily in an improved — and well-trafficked — website.

So, the issue of the problems of distribution of independent films, off-the-beaten track films, small niche films, continues to raise its ugly head. Now that we’ve got YouTube, how do those films get noticed? And, now that we’ve got the “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” philosophy, how do those films get reliably reviewed?

Of course, it’s all well and good to note that Thompson talks about mainstream films. Virtually no larger circulation newspapers reviewed Stan Brakhage films that I’m aware of.

But, in my mind, what Thompson is talking about, fits squarely in the middle of the same argument that we’ve all been having — how are the Internet and socialized media changing the world of old media, and what can old media do to keep relevant in this new world.

Hyper Kinetic Editing — Part Two

23 02 2008

 Elizabeth Shoemaker comments on my post on Hyper Kinetic Editing by asking:

How do you feel about the use of multiscreen images to propel stories in television (i.e. CSI MIAMI). And, do you think that audiences will just adapt to the hyperkinetic editing? I had an experience years ago watching the classic “M.” Many in the group thought it was too slow. And I had to wonder if it’s because audiences are so much better at making leaps in story that it made them impatient for the movie to “move on.”

Personally, I think that picture-in-picture/split screen/multiple screen editing can be quite effective if it is used to tell the story properly.  Split screen was used very early on to show two people on a phone conversation (much like 24 does today, though slightly less kinetically).  It seemed to take off in the Sixties, after Dupont, IBM and a number of other companies used it in the films they showed at the New York’s World Fair (1964-1965) — films directed by Charles and Roy Eames, and Francis Thompson (who I worked for in the late seventies, by the way).

Check out the original THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, for instance, to see a use of split screen that isn’t about telephone conversations.

So, it’s not the fact that there is split screen but the fact that it’s used more energetically than before that creates the difference.

On Elizabeth’s second point, there is no doubt in my mind that this rapid style of editing is both influenced by and has an influence on the culture that we live in.  It has long been pointed out that editing changed with the advent of MTV.  It has also been noted that the number of edits per 2000 foot film reel (about 22 minutes of film) has gone up since the introduction of digital non-linear editing.  It is also obvious to me that experimental filmmakers like Ed Emshwiller, Kenneth Anger, Michael Snow, and Stan Brakhage created a filmmaking style that made it possible for kinetic editing to move to the mainstream.  But I think that it is far from clear which is the chicken and which is the egg.

I had an M type experience like yours.  A few years ago I decided to rewatch THE FRENCH CONNECTION, with the intent of using its famous car chase underneath the elevated train tracks in an editing class of mine.  However, when I took a look at Friedkin’s direction and Jerry Greenberg’s editing on it, while it still blew me away as amazing, it no longer seemed to be the frenetic, nausea-inducing editing style that caused many viewers to complain that they couldn’t watch it.  It had been too much of an experience.

Culture changes and experimental cinema generally is in the forefront of that change.  Commerical film, on the other hand, always lags behind.  So, now that frenetic editing seems to be in every film short of a Shakespeare adaption, the audience is used to it.  But, in my opinion, it’s not because film is changing our sensibilities.  It’s because film is following our evolving sensibilities.

If you take a look at many movies from the 30s, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of shoe leather — shots of people walking or driving from one place to another.  A character will say “I’m going home now.”  And then he will turn and walk away, open the door, go out into the hallway, get into the elevator.  We’ll watch the floor indicator descending, and then see him get out of the elevator and walk through the lobby to his car (always conveniently parked right in front of the building — were there always convenient spots in that era?) .  He’ll get in, start the car and take off.  After a shot or two (with a wipe between them) of the car driving, it will pull up in front of the house.  The man will shut off the engine, get out of the car and walk to the front door.  He’ll open it, step inside, and we’ll cut to him walking into the living room.  “I’m home,” he’ll announce.

Here, in 2008, we’ll hear him say “I’m going home” and there’ll be a cut to him stepping into the living where he’ll announce “I’m home.”

Audiences change.  Film eventually changes with them.

Best Gazillion Movies of All Time

18 02 2008

I mentioned this back a hundred years ago, in the first incarnation this blog, but I thought it deserved another mention.

USC apparently sends a list of movies that they would like incoming students to have seen and Mike Gerber published the list. It’s actually a pretty impressive list and I wondered how many all of you have seen. As for me, I’ve seen many of them (the films I haven’t seen are in italics — go ahead, razz me now):

A Hard Day’s Night
African Queen
Alice in the Cities
All About Eve
American Friend, The
American Grafitti
Annie Hall
Apartment, The
Apocalype Now
Apu Trilogy, The
Band of Outsiders
Band Wagon, The
Barton Fink
Battle of Algiers
Being John Malkovich
Bicycle Thief, The
Big Lebowski, The
Black Orpheus
Blade Runner
Blue Velvet
Bob le Flambeur
Bonnie and Clyde
Boyz ‘n the Hood
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Read the rest of this entry »

Deconstructing Film

12 02 2008

I don’t want this to sound too film study-ish and all but for those of you who weren’t able to catch the Wooster Group’s performance piece HAMLET, which just finished its run at REDCAT, you missed an amazing study in film editing.

That’s right — film editing.

I’m going to talk about this by taking a diversion — into the Getty Museum. Viola diptych 2Back in 2003, the Getty mounted a show by Bill Viola called PASSION. The work used very high speed camera to record actors going through varying emotions. Because the footage was shot super high speed, the characters moved in e-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y s-l-o-w m-o-t-i-o-n. What this means is that you got to see the characters at every stage of their emotional moment. Though you could barely see them move, so slow was the motion, you could study their eyes, body and inner life. You noticed that it changed, you just couldn’t tell when.

So, what does this have to do with editing, you ask? One of the rooms had a series of very large video monitors positioned around each other (you can see two of them next to each other on the right). The fascinating thing that I noticed as I looked at the work for minute after minute is that, because the characters turned as they emoted, their positions relative to each other.

In editing, I believe in something that I’ve dubbed the Rule of Threes, which basically says that the impact of a shot is completely dependent on the shot that came before it and will inevitably effect the shot that comes after it. No shot lives alone. Looking at two different shots placed physically side-by-side (as opposed to temporally, the way we normally work in film) increased that rule even more. Mike Figgis, in his film TIMECODE, experimented with this, by placing four separate stories on a quad split screen. The television series 24 does the same with its copious use of picture-in-picture. But it was this side-by-side placement of a number of hyper-slow depictions of characters emoting that brought the feeling home.

So, finally, what does this have to do with Hamlet? (which you should rush right out and see if you like avant garde theatre and if it ever plays again in your neck of the woods)

The Wooster Group’s play takes a 1962 presentation of HAMLET, directed by John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton. The theater piece was recorded by 27 cameras, according to the program notes, for a television presentation on two nights only. After that, the film was put away.

Until now.

The original television presentation the play dominates one large projection screen in the upstage center of the theater. As it runs, the Wooster Group performs the play in perfect sync (more or less) with that original performance. But there is so much more to it than that. Hamlet, played by Scott Shepherd, interacts with the playback — sometimes telling the unseen tech crew to “fast forward to that dagger scene” or “we don’t need this.” The video behind him responds to his commands, the ever present word PLAY that sits on the upper left corner of the screen (mimicking, in a unreal sort of manner, a VCR playback unit) is replaced by the letters “FF” and the screen squiggles as if it is a tape being shuttled forward.

At other times, there are jump cuts in the footage which the actors on stage must mimic by moving their bodies jerkily. In many other portions of the film, characters have been digitally erased, though the actors performing those roles continue on (right in front of our eyes) copying the performance of the 1962 actors which can be seen on a number of cue monitors set up around the stage. In some cases, the footage is replaced by the Final Cut blue Unrendered screen (and, though the 1962 soundtrack continues, it is joined by the beeping that is associated with mismatched sound files in Final Cut).

In a particularly brilliant and inspired process, the stage actors recreate the concepts of camera dollies by moving themselves, the furniture and their props forward or backward on the stage. As the camera in the 1962 production moves out and to the right, all of the live actors on stage take several steps backward and shift to their rights, dragging tables and chairs with them. The result? The play audience becomes hyper aware of the moving camera.

In short, this is a play that makes us think about how movies work. It is Hamlet, deconstructed, in much the same way that Bill Viola’s PASSION, took apart the power of the edit to relate emotion. But it is not Hamlet that is really being analyzed here, it is a film of Hamlet and our perceptions of film as reality.

And while that may sound all Cinema School, for anyone who has ever edited intensely, you will recognize what is happening here. As an editor we must figure out, either subconsciously or consciously, how a particular edit will work with an audience. In this HAMLET we are asked to look at the way in which this television production has been put together — with its jump cuts, dolly movies, and actors — and internalize the technique while we listen to Shakespeare’s words.

It’s brilliant and a thrilling 2-3/4 hours of theatre.


ACE Editing Panel Videos

11 01 2008

A.C.E. has some interesting videos posted documenting a panel discussion about editing that was held at the LA Film School in early 2007. Panelists included editors Stuart Bass, A.C.E., Tchavdar Georgiev, and Stephen Rivkin, A.C.E. along with assistant editors Andrew Charlton, Meagan Keane, and Alan McCurdy. It was moderated by Harry Miller, A.C.E.

The videos of the panel are divided up into four parts. A breakdown is as follows (each line links to the mentioned video):

Part One is about getting started in the business.

Part Two discusses Collaboration in the Editing Rooms

Part Three discusses Creativity and the Use of Technology

Part Four contains audience Q&A with Career Advice

Worth the time investment, there is a great behind the scenes feel to these clips. Note that there are three assistant editors on this panel, as well as the editors. This is a great balance since, as Harry B. Miller (moderator) says up front — assistants make editing possible.  The assistants end up speaking to some of the issues closest to students’ hearts — how to get a job after school

One side note, two of the panelists were students of mine at USC (Meagan and Tchavdar).