Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Ramble on Editing, Petulia and Pauline (Part 1 of 3)

This ramble will take place in three posts. They can be read separately or together.

The first part comprises some of my thoughts on the art of film editing. The second post will be a short review of "Petulia." The final post will be a response to a classical Pauline Kael essay and her criticism of "Petulia." Skim accordingly.

Part I: Editing.

One of the ongoing debates that has hounded the history of movie making and film criticism is the role of editing. The Soviets, and others of the 1920’s, thought it was the key aspect of film, the element that distinguished it from the other arts. In the late 1950’s Andre Bazin linked long takes to realism and helped foment a tradition for prestige pictures, art films and festival features to prefer composition and staging over cutting. Hollywood has done it’s best to make editing invisible, giving it a servile position responsible for narrative clarity. Perceived commercial demands have defined a narrow set of conventions almost universally adhered to by studio filmmakers.

Since the mid-1970s, film theorists Barry Salt and David Bordwell have pioneered the measuring of ASL (average shot length) to track variation between time periods, genres and directors. They’ve shown that a shift occurred in which the ASL went from about 8-11 seconds before 1960 to 4-6 seconds today. The contrast has become ever more extreme, with ASLs ranging from 2.4 seconds (Bourne Supremacy) to 223.1 (Werckmeister Harmonies) almost entirely along “party lines” (Hollywood genre movies versus art house productions) though exceptions exist. Guy Maddin, for instance, is typically under 3.

For those interested in more of this type of statistical data, I’m getting most of my numbers from Cinemetrics and the work of Salt and Bordwell. A while back I made my own very loose and unscientific pacing scale, which is heavily influenced by the measurement of ASL.

The whole matter is surprisingly contentious within some film circles. I’ve seen critics who regularly blast anything cut remotely fast as juvenile marketing trash usually with some reference to MTV and video games. On the opposite end are people who dismiss any film that regularly lingers on the same image for long enough to digest it fully as unwatchably boring and utterly pretensions. I’m guilty of making both complaints (at least out loud if not often online), though I don’t subscribe to the idea that one ASL is somehow intrinsically better than another. I think pacing is an artistic choice that needs to be fit to the content and tone, though the whole issue is a bit muddled by outside factors like attention span, patience, experience, expectations and, let’s face it, how much sleep we’ve had.

The important thing is not to get dogmatic. ASL is not a measure of quality. The Soviet montage theorists (Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Dziga Vertov) never* argued in favor of speed for its own sake, but rather, the way shots compare, contrast and link up to create new meanings. Bazin didn’t dismiss fast cutting outright and, in fact, he was a proponent of the continuity editing of directors like Hawks and Ford. Responsible film criticism needs to look into the reasons for slow cutting (clarity, compositional complexity, realism, camera movement, deep or changing focus, mood, unity) versus fast cutting (pace, rhythm, close-ups, reframing, contrast, excitement, tension, cross-cutting, creative geography, range of perspective) and all the speeds in between. The topics I’ve just laid out only scratch the surface, implying a uniformity of ASL throughout a film which isn’t always present or desirable.

To me, the only really bad editing is using cuts for no real reason except, perhaps, to get a visceral eye-twitch reactions or because your producer/distributer/sponsor tells you it needs to be faster and attention-grabbing. On the flipside, holding a shot for an undue length solely to appear deep or arty (or to fill a predetermined time slot), is an equally odious offense. Things get into sticky territory here because the hardest reason to determine is no reason at all. I try (and often fail) to give the benefit of the doubt to every film I watch. This means constantly asking myself (1) why was such and such artistic choice made and (2) did the choice succeed in its goal.

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