Friday, May 9, 2008

Ramble on Editing, Petulia and Pauline (Part 2 of 3)

Part II: Petulia.

Critics often had a hard time analyzing the changes in editing that were going on in the 1960’s, that key transition decade identified by Bordwell and Salt. Then as now, many felt that the increasing rates were symptomatic of a larger cultural shift, and it became a whipping boy for other negative, but more abstract, trends that were going on in film. Not only was editing getting faster, it was getting more experimental, but some couldn’t really be bothered to tell the difference.

If I had to pick any one director who led the way into the modern paradigm of quick cutting, for better or worse, it would have to be Richard Lester. His “A Hard Day’s Night” is a work of genius that I had the rare experience of discovering twice: once as a kid caught up in its silly, manic charm and again as a film student mesmerized by its wild innovation and subversive wit. The film’s influence is overwhelming and is cited as inspiring everything from music videos to Soderbergh’s “Schizopolis.”

I wanted to find out if Lester was anything more than a lucky hack who rode to success on Beatlemania. While I was casting around for his other works I found “Petulia” (1968) at the public library. Outside of consulting the cast list I knew nothing about it. Having watched it, I feel I should have known better. I found it to be a masterpiece of cinematography and editing, a technical varnish of startling originality over a set of performances which would still have saved a movie shot in a single take against cardboard backdrops.

The story is a literal and figurative jigsaw, a patchwork of bruised emotions, soured experiences and traumatic events that is stitched together by a handful of characters who don’t know a single means to express their troubles, but know a hundred to ways to mask, deny or prettify them. George C. Scott and Julie Christie give some of the best performances of their careers as two would-be lovers trying to conduct an affair from opposite ends of a labyrinth. They could explore anywhere they want, but spend most of their time in dead ends. The setting is a San Francisco dystopia that is so hip and futuristic, one could almost forget it’s set in the past if it wasn’t for the fashion and décor screaming 1968.

Nicolas Roeg provides the gorgeous, haunting cinematography and I suspect he had some influence over Antony Gibbs’s editing, since the film is cut more like a Roeg movie (especially “Bad Timing” and “Don’t Look Now”) than Lester’s Beatles films. This is one of the few movies where editing is given pride of place, with all sorts of uncommon techniques on display: flash forwards, associational editing, shifts in subjectivity and jump cuts to name a few. I love the way that the camera joins the characters when they get distracted or gets grabbed by a sudden memory that jumps unbidden into their minds. Some of the associations are aggressive and even confrontational, but others are subtle passage linked by objects and emotions that find unexpected routes through the maze of isolation and disillusionment.

There’s restraint, too, though the craftsmanship is so explicitly experimental that it’s not immediately obvious. Roeg knows when a steady composition has more impact than a hard cut (but he does love his hard cuts). Gibbs sacrifices needless close-ups to give more freedom to the camera, confident that words and intonation can carry the performances. Lester pokes holes in the protective shells of his characters, but knows when to let them keep up appearances.

Walrus Rating: 8.5

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