Wendy Apple’s The Cutting Edge is one of the finest documentaries I’ve ever seen about a specific process of filmmaking. For film students, Apple’s film is required, for cinephiles, it’s necessary.
The film details several things, most notably how the film editor is one of the most important, yet most ignored roles within the filmmaking process. The movie implores dozens of interviews from people you’ve heard of, and twice as many from people you haven’t. Those men (and women) are the masters. The anonymous, patient, exacting movie crafters. They sit alone (or with the director by their side) and mold a movie into what it can be, and what it does become. “Great editing skill,” Sean Penn says early on, “Will protect a director from suicide.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
There are a million ways to cut every scene, and for movie nerds like myself, seeing it unfold and be explained by people who really know what the hell they’re doing is just, well, invigorating.
At 1 hour and 40 minutes, The Cutting Edge manages to fit in enough to make you an expert. It fuses history with how-to, and never once strains your attention. Now, I hope you don’t mind, but if there’s ever a time for a movie fan to geek out, it’s in this review.
The Cutting Edge traces the beauty of editing all the way to Edwin S. Porter, who introduced inter-cutting with The Life of an American Fireman in 1903 by crosscutting a fire and the firemen on their way to put it out. From there it moves onto D.W. Griffith whose films like The Birth of the Nation (1915) established a classical (and revelatory) editing style that would remain until Dziga Vertov flipped it on its ass with his Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which was one of the first movies that, through editing, made the audience aware that they were viewing a movie.
We watch the Nazi’s discover what editing did for propaganda (via Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliant and horrifying Triumph of the Will), and how America established the classic, logical editing that would remain for decades. That is, until a mad genius named Jean-Luc Godard released Breathless, the film that broke all the rules. “Breathless was too cool for me,” Martin Scorsese muses. “I liked it, but I didn’t know what the hell was happening.”
I’m not going to transcribe everything the film chronicles, but believe me, for any remote fan of cinema, there is simply no way The Cutting Edge should go unseen. But if I take a moment to pull myself back from the awe that is laced through much of the movie, I can indeed point out a few flaws. One is Apple’s choice of interview subjects, namely Rob Cohen, the director of The Fast and the Furious (the first one) and xXx. In one scene, Cohen attempts to honorably justify the MTV style editing he’s grown accustomed to, while virtually every other interviewee (including Scorsese, Spielberg, and Tarantino) rebuke it.
MTV, as far as I can tell, ruined the art of movie editing. Music videos made it acceptable to hold a shot for a second before feverishly cutting on. Mind you, this isn’t always a bad thing, as Spielberg says in the film, that kind of editing can be extremely effective within a scene, but to sit through two hours of it is exhausting. This depends entirely on taste, of course, but I could not agree more.
Despite its few minor flaws, The Cutting Edge educates, inspires and let’s you in on a little secret that most people don’t bother to familiarize themselves with: the director is the one with the vision, the editor is the one who transcribes it. A-
(Note: This movie is rather hard to find. Send me an e-mail or DM me on Twitter for a little help – firstname.lastname@example.org, @shiftingPersona)